Review: Per Petterson plumbs The River of Time

Norse code
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 7, 2010

TIME BENDER: Petterson’s chronology can become unwieldy, but his masterful prose keeps the story afloat.

Why would Per Petterson — the bestselling Scandinavian writer whose books don't feature an invincible crimefighting heroine — curse the river of time when he is so adept at navigating it? Dip into the stream of consciousness in almost any of the brooding Norwegian's novels and past and present will overlap and dissolve and reconfigure in patterns with little regard for chronological narrative.

I Curse the River of Time| by Per Petterson | Translated by Charlotte Barslund, with the author | Graywolf Press | 246 pages | $23
In this, his newest novel, which is part of an ongoing, semi-autobiographical saga spun out in his previous works, the river runs on many levels, eddies of past experience that flow simultaneously in the mind of Arvid, the sad-sack first-person narrator. It's kind of like the film Inception, except that the medium is memory and not dreams, the architecture is stable if a bit banal, and there are no shootouts.

Arvid, a lapsed Communist (the title, it turns out, is a quote from a poem by Mao Zedong — who knew the crotchety old mass murderer had a soft spot for verse?), begins his tale by announcing, "All this happened quite a few years ago." He's referring in part to events in 1989, when, lamenting his impending divorce and the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Union, he takes a ferry from Oslo to northern Denmark to visit his cancer-stricken mother, whom we saw as a feisty teenager in Petterson's 1996 novel To Siberia. While engaged in this sentimental journey, Arvid reflects on his youth in the '70s, when he enraged his mother by quitting school, joining the party, and taking a job at a factory. During this time, he also connects with a younger fellow traveler, a beautiful unnamed girl who appears to be the love of his life — and the woman he is about to divorce in 1989.

Interspersed among these storylines are less developed, epiphanic interludes precipitated by such Proustian cues as a hissing tea kettle and the smell of cocoa. They include Arvid's recollection of how he went to visit his dying younger brother in 1983 and, while riding the tram to the hospital, passed the place where he had once brought in a dog to be euthanized. So much for trying to find a little break in his misery. "I realised," he observes ruefully, "that these fifteen minutes I had thought I could inhabit so safely were far from being an expanding space, on the contrary, it was like it always is with time, that it can slip through your fingers when you are not looking." Rather than retrieving lost time, Arvid is continually losing the present moment to inescapable memories of past loss.

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