Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson

A Rare Breed of Publisher:  Graywolf Press

This review is a repost of one from April, 2010, in order to focus on the title as it releases August 3, 2010.  This is part of a special event called the "Spotlight Series" that focuses on smaller publishers, and the last two weeks have been focused on the amazing Graywolf Press, a literary group that promotes literary fiction, translated works, and global poetry.  They are an active press with numerous award winning titles in their list, and this latest Petterson title will likely continue the tradition. 

I Curse the River of Time is Per Petterson’s newest title, and it feels different from his previous novels. For one thing, there is a different feel to the words, almost a jagged and sharp edge to the prose. While Out Stealing Horses was almost dreamlike in its beauty and simplicity, this has more of an abrupt edge to it. That became apparent to me in reading portions of it aloud (a cranky baby was resisting sleep) and the words felt chunky and awkward, the sentences long and meandering. Given the subject matter, the complicated relationship of a son with his mother, I think this simply underlines just how talented a writer Petterson is. The style fits the story.

The novel begins with the illness of Arvid Jansen’s mother, and her quick journey away from home to absorb her news. Arvid quickly follows. The telling is interspersed with flashbacks of Arvid’s life, from incidents in childhood to more recent times with his impending divorce. His mother is portrayed as a distant but loving individual, with a strong personality and an aloofness towards Arvid that is never formally explained. It is very much centered on Arvid and his inner feelings as he perceives her, rather than her personal motivations.

Much of what makes this novel fascinating is by what isn’t said: several significant events happen (a family death, her illness itself) that are not explored at all. Rather Petterson focuses on how those events affect Arvid and his mother. If he were to have explained every detail of those events a reader would likely be struck more by the tragedy and its details rather than by what Petterson is getting at, the more subtle change in relationships. It’s really very clever to read it that way. It’s almost as if those very dramatic events are secondary to who these people really are.

As a child, Arvid didn’t fit in with his family, despite his parent’s assurances of how much he was ‘wanted’ by them, and valued. On a dismal occasion when a stranger took him to be an outsider from his family,

“But what I found out that summer…was that I could swallow whatever hit me and let it sink as if nothing had happened. So I pretended to play a game that meant nothing to me now, I made all the right movements, and then it looked as if what I was doing had a purpose, but it did not.”

There are allusions made to what might cause him to feel this way, and Petterson lets us wonder. As in life, he seems to want to tell us, there are no easy answers. I have some personal suspicions why this may be, but I don't want to spoil the mystery for anyone else (and I could easily be wrong).

Arvid’s life is more complicated than most, especially in his relationships with women. Three significant relationships are explored, and all of them seem to have him positioned still in the childish role of needing affirmation. In considering his divorce, he thinks

“…there is just you and me, we said to each other, just you and me, we said. But something had happened, nothing hung together any more, all things had spaces, had distances between them, like satellites, attracted to and pushed away at the same instant, and it would take immense willpower to cross those spaces, those distances, much more than I had available, much more than I had the courage to use.”

One of Arvid’s great desires is to be a good Communist, to help the ‘proletariat’ and his usage of that word rather than the more common ‘working class’ used by his Communist friends, infers he deems his calling in a more elevated sense than a true Communist might normally feel. While his parents had been in the working class themselves, his choosing it rather than pursuing college is his means to be different from them. A confusing choice for a man completely confused about who he is.

His feelings towards his mother are obsessive. He thinks of her often yet tries to appear distant and wants her to know he's separate:

“There was a before and after now, a border which I had crossed, or a river perhaps, like the Rio Grande, and suddenly I was in Mexico where things were different and a little frightening, and the crossing had left its mark on my face, which my mother would instantly see and realize that we were standing on opposite sides of the river, and the fact that I left her would hurt her, and she would no longer like me and not want me.”

Yet despite the chasm he imagines, he actually still seeks her out, chasing her even, not wanting to miss a moment of her attention and hoping for any kind of approval.  What I found especially signifcant was that while Arvid actively seeks his mother's blessing, he shows little concern for the rest of his family, to the point that his brothers and father remain on the periphery of his life (and this story).

The story is complex and requires a careful reading. Speeding through this one will offer no satisfaction, this one to relish and unravel. One thing that jumped out at me, and it had to be intentional, was that the character of Arvid Jansen is the same name as the main character in In the Wake by Petterson, where Arvid loses most of his family in a ferry accident (a horror suffered by Petterson himself). If that is indeed the case, then this book would serve as a prequel to In the Wake, and thus his story continues. This is the fourth of the Petterson books I have read and own, and he continues to be one of my favorite authors.

Special thanks to Erin Kottke of Graywolf Press for the Advanced Reader's Copy.  Be sure to browse their online catalog for great titles at

It is scheduled to be released in August 3, 2010.

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