Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In the Wake, Per Petterson

In the Wake by Per Petterson...

I'm sleep walking today as I ended up sucked into this book all night long and ended up with maybe an hour of sleep.  A sleep filled with images from the book.  Which is really appropriate given that I'm in a similar state to the main character of this book, Arvid.

"Wake" can refer to three things, and all are fitting for this novel by the Norwegian writer Petterson.  First, it can mean wake as in not asleep, awake:  which is something that happens fairly rarely as the protagonist is sleepwalking through his days haunted by both memories and dreams that seem to keep him out of a fully awake coherent state.   It can also mean a vigil held over a corpse before burial, and this fits too:  the main character has lost most of his family to tragedy at sea and the remainder of them to divorce and an attempted suicide.  He is unable to bury his family, so to speak, as his memories of his father keep pressing at him.  Lastly, wake can represent the wave that spreads behind a boat, or the consequences of an event (what is left behind spinning out of control).  This again fits as the tragedy at sea is from a burning ship. 

All of these forms of "wake" fit into the puzzle of the novel without being overly clever or trite.  The character Arvid  is complex, and Petterson fills him out into a human that fascinates me yet still leaves me questions unanswered. 

For one thing, there's no seeming explanation for the distance from Arvid and his brother throughout their childhood, both emotionally and geographically.  Additionally, his relationship with his father seems based on pleasing his Dad even to the point of his own suffering.  What does he get out of that?  He doesn't seem to care for his Dad, and acknowledges in several places that at his father's many requests, he could have declined at any time.  He didn't.  He pushed himself to live up to his father's expectations, and yet seemed to have no discernable love for him.  Towards the end he concludes that if he knew some of his father's own struggles, revealed after his death, it might have made him closer to him in life.

Another big question for me was why, after his divorce, did he spend so little time with his daughters?  He mentions that maybe he's had enough of family and family connections, yet he chides his suicidal brother for not considering what his son would have felt had his suicide succeeded.   Throughout the book Arvid goes through his fog of memories (literal fog too) and nearly kills himself numerous times in different ways, albeit without the conscious decision.  I wonder if he intentionally tried to dissolve his own role as father so as not to traumatize his daughters with his own death, one that seems lurking behind every corner.

I really liked this book, and the character is someone I could see having coffee with.  It asserts that everyone grieves differently (no kidding) but also that grief never fades.  It may move into another corner of the mind, as if in a spare room with the door shut, but it is still in residence.

One thing that sort of rattled me was that this book was a translation from Norwegian, and there were a few phrases that seemed really out of whack.  I know nothing of language or translation, but I'm curious if that was an intention of the author or a glitch in the translation.

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