I Curse the River of Time

by Per Petterson
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Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Those familiar with Per Petterson’s award-winning novel Out
Stealing Horses—the most acclaimed work of Norwegian
fiction in recent memory—will find many
familiar ingredients in his newest book,
I Curse the River of Time.  Here we en-
counter a typical Petterson protagonist,
the aloof, uncommunicative, sometimes
self-destructive, Arvid Jansen—he has
figured in previous works by this author—
and a fractured narrative style, in which
the story can jump decades in the course
of a single paragraph.

Indeed, the title of this novel—which comes from a poem by Mao
Zedong—could also serve as motto for this author’s stylized approach
to the chronology of his plots.  If time is a river that only flows one
way, Petterson is determined to swim upstream.  His books, by
necessity, start in a specific time and place, but they never remain
there for long, and every decisive interlude brings with it reverberation
of previous incidents, and those carry with them, in turn, the weight of
even earlier events.  Petterson traces these connections in unfolding
dramas that feature flashbacks as prominently as contemporaneous

Several of the key plots in
I Curse the River of Time unfold during the
year 1989, when the Berlin Wall is tumbling—unsettling to the loyal
Communist Party member Jansen, who renounced the opportunities to
get a college education in order to raise the consciousness of the
working class in a factory job.  At this same time, almost everything
else seems to come crashing down in Jansen’s life.  His marriage is
heading towards a painful divorce.   And his mother has been
diagnosed with cancer, and may only have a short while more to live.

In the midst of these crises, Jansen is adrift.  But if he can’t fix his
marriage or rebuild the Berlin Wall, he can at least try to patch up his
troubled relationship with his mother.  Yet she has her own agenda
and, fearing that her days are numbered, sets off a solitary pilgrimage
to her native Denmark—a place she still refers to as “home” decades
after moving away—in an attempt to make peace with her own past.   
Her son follows after her, and the reader witnesses the sad spectacle
of both trying to address, in the course of a few days, the regrets,
hostilities and troubling memories that have built up over a lifetime.    

As noted above, when Per Petterson is telling the story, the narrative
never proceeds in a straightforward manner, and flashbacks take such
prominence that the reader sometimes needs to pause and try to
figure which decade of the century is currently under consideration.    
As you proceed through this work, your chronological compass will
require constant resetting, as you revisit the early history of Jansen’s
courtship with his future wife, his struggles in bringing Communist
doctrine to his indifferent fellow workers, and a litany of awkward
moments, over the years, with his mother.   

Even when the flashback incidents seem disconnected from the story,
Petterson relies on them to accentuate the emotional tone of his
novel.  For example, a sidebar recollection of an incident in which the
narrator brought a dog to a clinic for euthanization is introduced
haphazardly—raised by the narrator as his tram passes by a veterinary
college.  Another fractured memory relates to a visit Jansen made to
his dying brother in the hospital—and in this case, our narrator never
even finishes the account, either repressing the details or saving them
for a different Petterson book.  No matter, even these disconnected
echoes from the past help shape the sensibility of a novel in which the
endgame—of a life, a wall, a relationship—seems to lead inevitably to
checkmate, overwhelming any hopes of a fresh start and new horizons.

This relationship between the narrator and his mothers serves as the
emotional cornerstone of
I Curse the River of Time, and also provides
rare opportunities for humor in a novel that is otherwise dark and even
lugubrious.   Our narrator will present scenes with his mother drawn
from various periods of his life, yet the fidelity with which they follow a
familiar pattern is uncanny, almost absurd.  Arvid will typically try to
surprise her, but she can always tell it is him—usually even before she
catches a glimpse of her son.  “Is that you?” she will ask before turning
around.   And her followup is invariably:  “Are you broke?  Do you need
money?”  And just as often, his honest answer would be “yes,”
although he prefers to act offended that she would think his visits were
timed in order to receive handouts.  Not that he intends to turn down
her offer of money….

One might laugh at this predictable repartee, but below the superficial
humor there is a tragedy in a relationship that is locked in such an
awkward rut, year after year, decade after decade.   In these kinds of
effects, in which a lifetime of personal stories coalesce into a single
reverberating pattern, Petterson is without peer.  And in the final
pages of a Petterson novel, we invariably learn that all the fragments
and flashbacks have fallen into place—albeit with connections that our
stalwart character might prefer not to know.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.
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