Norwegian writer Per Petterson writes in a sparse, restrained style which somehow mirrors the bleak Scandinavian towns and landscapes he describes in his novels. In I Curse the River of Time, we meet Arvid Janse, a character who features in other Petterson novels, a tired man who has failed to fulfil his potential and has a propensity to cheap whisky and memories of better times.
Arvid is going through a divorce, and his mother is dying of stomach cancer. We join the story with his mother leaving Oslo on a ferry to sail small town in Jutland where she grew up, and where the family have a beach house near a remote village.
Petterson plays tricks with his readers straight-away as we read Arvid’s detailed description of his mother’s voyage complete with her thoughts and actions, down to the way she twisted the top off a bottle of whisky and filled her glass half-full – actions which her son, the first person narrator could not possibly have seen. However, it all creates atmosphere: the cold sea and the bleak landscape of North Jutland with it marram grass, pine trees and sea-mist.
We then find ourselves in a car with Arvid and his two young daughters. They are going for an aimless drive, one of many which they call “field-watching”. Far from asking “Are we nearly there yet?”, the girls seem to enjoy their travels through the gloomy landscape, singing Beatles songs as they speed across bare fields and over treeless hills.
And then the early dark descended and there was nothing more to see. Inside the car it grew dark around our shoulders and dark around our hands. Only the girls’ hair was shining in the glow from the lights along the road, in red and in yellow, and the numbers glowed on the speedometer and the tiny blue light for the main beam went on and off with the oncoming traffic and we stopped our singing on the way past Skjetten and were silent on the bridge by the station at Strømmen.
Of course, the trouble with first-person narratives like this is that you spend the whole book inside the head of the narrator. We get carried along with the thoughts of the character so far, then sometimes we think, hang on a minute, do I really want to be here? For Arvid Jansen expresses himself beautifully but he is not always the most uplifting company being prone to a depressive outlook on life and an overwhelming sense of defeat.
No act of will would get me out of this state, no leap of thought pull me up. At times the only option was to sit in a chair and wait for the worst ravages to calm down so I could perform the most basic tasks: cut a slice of bread, go to the toilet, or drag myself all those exhausting metres through the hallway to lie down on my bed.
The book moves easily back and forth between the present day and earlier times when Arvid dropped out of college because he wanted to bring a Maoist form of socialism to the industrial workers of his town. His studies in socialism have created in his head an idealised vision of the working class, but, “I could not shake off the feeling that the working class I spoke of was not quite the same as the one my mother and father belonged to on a daily basis”. When he tells his mother that he is going to leave college, her reaction, perhaps unsurprisingly, is to strike his cheek with the flat of her hand. If you have spent your days working in a factory in order to support you son through college you could be a little disappointed when he throws it back in your face.
He gets a job in a factory, but finds that there is a void between him and the other workers: “every single time I tried to turn the conversation from football to the factions in the trade union movement – the red, revolutionary, and the blue, conservative – they would simply pat me on the shoulder, laugh and walk away”.
As the book progresses (if that’s the right word for this meander through Arvid’s life) we learn that although he was not his mother’s favourite son. He seems to have a deep feeling for her , and when he hears of her departure for Jutland, he follows her to the remote beach house. He finds her sitting on the beach looking out to sea and smoking a cigarette. She seems underwhelmed to see him,
“It’s me”, I said
“I know who it is. I heard your thoughts clatter all the way down the road. Are you broke?”
They return to the house and Arvid cuts down a huge pine tree, for reasons I didn’t quite understand. As far as I can tell, he intends to cut the pine tree into logs but never gets round to it – perhaps showing that Arvid is prone to grand gestures but never seems able to bring anything to a successful conclusion – his marriage, his fathering of the girls, his career as a Maoist.
These events happen in the late 1980s, and towards the end of the book, Arvid hears that the Berlin Wall has fallen. He is alone on a beach in Jutland, while momentous events are happening at which he is not present (and which perhaps show the bankruptcy of his socialist ideals). He meditates on death, realising his fear of “that moment when you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever”. I think you would only feel like that if you had consistently taken the wrong route through your life, which Arvid has of course done. He has left little mark on the planet and at the age of 37 the reader suspects he never will.
I am not sure what the term “Scandinavian” means in terms of describing literature, but if its something to do with bleak landscapes, an eternal dark winter, depressed characters, recourse to alcohol to provide an escape, a slow meandering style of writing then this book is definitely Scandinavian. However, despite the fact that Arvid is hardly good company to be with, Petterson’s writing is at all times beautiful and it is that kept me reading to the end – and probably open to reading more of his books at a later date. I also reviewed Petterson’s book, To Siberia back in 2009 and wrote, “overall, the grey skies and bleak aspect of the landscape infect the narrative a little more than makes for an enjoyable read” which is not too far from what I’m saying about this one.
I am indebted to Reading Matters for bringing this book to my attention. Kim gave the book four stars and wrote, “I Curse the River of Time is far from an uplifting novel . . . it has a quiet, understated power that makes you feel as if your life has been enriched by the simple, all-consuming act of reading it”. I think that gets it just about right.