Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

I Curse the River of Time
by Per Petterson (translated from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund with the author)

Love, lust, loneliness, and longing — If I were asked to name the elements which make up satisfying literary fiction, I would answer alliteratively. If you’ve followed my reviews for any length of time, you know that the books reviews in which I tend to rave have a high incidence of those four L-words. Others may disagree with my definition, but that’s where my tastes lie. And oh, does I Curse the River of Time encompass these elements. It is a novel about one man trying desperately to hold himself together as everything he has ever held dear slips from his hands. I simply loved it.

In 1989 Norway, Arvid Jansen is on the brink of divorce and his mother has stomach cancer. He has one dead brother, a strained relationship with both parents, and a crumbling sense of his idealistic communist youth. His mother has decided to spend her last days in their Denmark summer home, the country of her birth, and he goes to visit her. He needs her, somehow, and he needs to hear something that will make the ache in his chest go away.

At first the sofa swayed like the ferry only a few hours earlier, and it made me feel a little sick, but then I got used to it and after awhile it was quite pleasant. The coarse cover of the sofa smelled of summer and the Sixties, I could hear my mother leafing through a book at the table behind me. The Razor’s Edge, I supposed. And then I heard the click of her lighter as she lit up another cigarette and I let go, went into freefall and was asleep before I hit the ground.

The man can write, and his translator’s no slouch either. (I have to give love to the translator, in part because the translators can often be ignored despite the immense amount of work involved, and also because my friend Karo is a translator, of the English and German variety. So, should you be in the market...) Petterson has a style that manages to be both stark and detailed, and his Arvid feel so much at once that he tries (and often fails) to overcorrect, to shut down before he is found out for being so sad.

How do we navigate the passage of time and all the punishment that comes from dashed expectations? Throughout the story, time bends backwards to Arvid’s youth, the day he told his mother he was leaving university, the nights he spent by his future wife’s side. He longs for love, the full on kind, a body wrapped around him. His communism comes from the desire for all people to do what is right by one another. It comes from a deep sense of fairness and nervousness around absolute power. He wants his headstrong mother to have empathy towards him.

I walked on around the bend and down to my school where the buildings stood dark in the autumn evening and looked strange, alien even, in an almost menacing way. When I got there, I crossed the empty courtyard and the sound of my boots threw echos off the walls on both sides and suddenly I could feel my mother was there. I’m not joking, she really was and she looked at me through the damp dark of Groruddalen School, and the windows on both sides showed no one leaning out the first floor window to call something nice to me, something embracing I had longed to hear, and I knew she was thinking: Has the boy enough about him, she thought, will he manage on his own or is he too fragile, that there was something about my personality that made her skeptical, that my character had a flaw, a crack in the foundation only she knew about, things had been handed to me, was what she thought, but life was not like that, nor should it be.

I feel for this man. I have felt like this man. Though my life may not resemble his — I am neither communist nor divorced — but I know what it is to curse a body for failing, to need another body next to yours, to be hurt so acutely when the ones you love no longer or maybe never felt the same. I have a crack in my foundation and am constantly putting work into it. Arvid is a man who has not yet crawled out from the unyielding hole of depression. In fact, he’s up to his graying hair in it. It’s not as though one roots for his perseverance, exactly, but rather nods with understanding. The reader who has been there knows what his mother does not — it is not always so easy to make up our minds and pull up the proverbial bootstraps. Sometimes, one cannot even lift their head off the bed to find the boots themselves.

That said, I cannot comment on how “heavy” this book reads. It’s not terribly long — 233 pages — and it’s not melodramatic, but I don’t know how it reads to someone with normal brain chemistry. I would like to think that anyone can relate to the cruelties that time imposes when we need to rectify the past. I would like to think that everyone has things they wish they’d said or done, and even if there are no major regrets, when the opportunity becomes a limited commodity, perspective changes.

I Curse the River of Time does not answer all its questions. It is neither tidy nor gushing with confession, even though we are privy to Arvid’s thoughts. And that’s okay. Though it may not be perfect, it is a remarkable book and one of the best I’ve read so far this year.


Full Disclosure: Graywolf Press sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them, and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.


  1. An old English professor told me once(when he was teaching review skills) that whether you loved or hated what it was you were reviewing(book,movie, etc) it should make your reader want to read/view it. In short a review/reviewer makes your reader want to investigate the subject matter on their own terms and find their own truths but may have not been prompted to do so otherwise. And when you can encourage someone to do so whether you enjoyed the subject matter or not, that is totally and completely incredible. You as a reviewer can sometimes do more than an author can because you are bringing and encouraging someone to explore beyond their comfort zone intellectually. And on a side note, I like that you give props to translators. As someone with a Spanish degree, so many things cannot be translated literally and still portray the authors meaning as intended. Props to you Sara! I have loved your reviews here in the last year whether you loved the material or not.

  2. Thanks so much, Heather. That means a lot. I really do try to give a fair shake to every book I read.