The atmospheres created by northern landscapes have always held a strong attraction for me. Whether by personal exposure or when represented in paintings, music or literature, the vastness of space, rugged coastlines, deep dark forests and, above all, the crystal clear colours brought on by the specific climates, their lure can be ever so powerful. In Per Petterson's OUT STEALING HORSES sixty-seven year old Trond Sander is profoundly drawn to such a place: he leaves Oslo and settles in a remote cabin somewhere in north-eastern Norway. Skilfully portrayed by the author, the character superbly fits the environment: he is somebody who responds completely to that lure of tranquility, the promise of harmony with his surroundings that gives time for contemplation of his life and keeps him occupied with the daily chores required to fix up the very basic cabin he had bought. And finally, he may also find some answer to a question that has been with him ever since one summer vacation in a comparable place when he was fifteen years old...
Trond Sander has all the time in the world now, as he ponderously goes through the daily chores of a self-sufficient hermit. Time is taking a different meaning for him as he reflects early on:
"Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking."
An encounter in the middle of the night with another apparent recluse, who lives down the river, annoys him initially as an interruption of his private time. Yet, when he realizes that the man is his boyhood friend's brother, Lars, his peace of mind is disrupted in a fundamental way. Memories come to the fore that were long buried in his mind, or were they really? From then on his musings of that one fateful summer vacation with his father take over much of his mental time. What appears initially to be the account of an ordinary, uneventful past, turns very soon into a special time that may have influenced the rest of his life.
The reader is transported into a narrative that alternates between Trond's descriptions of daily activities in the here and now and the events during the summer vacation with his father when he was fifteen. In all aspects, it was a watershed time for young Trond, a growing up period where the awkwardness of youth was combined with a new appreciation of a men's world of hard labour mixed with camaraderie, jokes and loyalties. Two tragic accidents involving his friend Jon, brother Lars and their family, shape the rest of the vacation and life afterwards. Delicate in its description, the reader is inescapably drawn to Trond and his surroundings. There are allusions to the reasons for his father's surprising familiarity with the small village and its people that the boy can describe yet without full understanding of their meaning. While father and son have a close relationship in many ways, there is a certain verbal awkwardness between them and it needs Franz, one of his father's work friend, to play a sort of intermediary to explain to the son what the father is and was all about. Strange? Maybe, but it completely matches the impression the reader develops of the central characters.
Trond, now with the hindsight of some fifty years, can make more sense of some of the events of the past and, in his mind, can put them into a wider context. From the outset, though. his present day reflections are interspersed with subtle hints to the past and, once the reader knows the story and goes back to read the beginning a second time, they will fall into place perfectly. Will he be able to answer that one life-long question? Well, maybe. The concluding part of the novel is at one level surprising and at another open-ended. Just as life is.
Petterson's language is spare and efficient in its use of imagery and evocation of atmospheres, both internal and external to his protagonist. While it is correct, as other reviewers have stated, that very little happens in the novel and the story unfolds ever so slowly, a reader like myself is easily fascinated by the character and completely drawn into the two sets of situations, past and present. With a narration style that leaves the reader to ponder, compare, and visualize, and fill in mental spaces, Petterson has achieved a remarkable work of fiction. [Friederike Knabe]