Review: To Siberia – Per Petterson

While Norwegian music is not totally unfamiliar to me (a-ha from the 80s and more recently, Secret Garden), I confess to not having read many Norwegian authors other than Henrick Ibsen, so its good to find a contemporary and reasonably-acclaimed Norwegian writer.

To Siberia was written in 1996 and won the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize.  It was translated into English by Anne Born and has recently been republished by Vintage Books, making a nice set of three together with In The Wake, and Peterson’s most recent book, Out Stealing Horses (which has an incredibly gloomy synopsis provided by the publishers on their website).

To Siberia certainly lives up to its reputation of being, er, er . . . Scandinavian.  Set in the cold land of Danish Jutland, where the sea freezes over and even the next town of Skagen is “nothing but sand”.

The story is narrated by an un-named young girl.  The nearest we get to a name is when her brother addresses her as Sistermine.  I think there should be a rule that writers should name their characters, for how can we poor reviewers refer to them other than by annoying descriptive titles such as the one I use, “the narrator”.  The family are incredibly poor.  The father works as a carpenter but is an inept businessman who charges minimal amounts for his work, while the mother is a deeply religious writer of hymns but refuses to publish them or even to sing them in public.

The atmosphere throughout the book is dour but relieved by the accounts of the narrator who has a quirky outlook on life and shares some childhood escapades with her brother Jesper, such as climbing out of the bedroom window at night and wandering through the quiet town and making forays across the frozen waters.

Both brother and sister dream of escape from this cold land, Jesper to Morocco, and the narrator, more surprisingly to Siberia, where after a journey on the Trans-Siberian railway, she would find, “open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances” (I thought Denmark was already like that).

The narrator has a bitter existence in the cold of the town, with a father subject to drinking binges and a religious but rather withdrawn mother.  She finds a friend in the more wealthy Lone (the headmaster’s daughter) and borrows books from her father’s extensive library, but alas, Lone later dies of an unknown disease leaving the narrator almost friendless again.

The Germans invade Denmark when the narrator is 14.  The government of Denmark capitulated quickly to the German advance and soldiers are billeted in the village.  There are efforts at resistance and Jesper is drawn to secret adventures, even to the extent of transporting a limpet mine on his bicycle.

The narrator goes swimming with a friend neary young German soldiers who are also bathing and when one of the young men nearly drowns after diving into shallow waters, she dives in and rescues him, pumping air out of her lungs with her knee.  When he comes round and she realises that she has been closer to this German soldier than to her own brother, she slaps him hard on the face.

After the war, Jesper makes it to Morocco, but the narrator only seems to get as far as Oslo and Stockholm, eventually returning home, to find great sadness.  The book ends with no relief from the almost stereotypically Scandinavian gloom, and the last sentence offering a final sigh of despair,

I am 23 years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.

I suppose the sort of thing one usually says about a book like this is that “it is beautifully written” or some such. Well, it is an evocative picture of a time of deprivation and soul-sapping poverty.  While the narrator has a unique outlook on life which gives the book a touch of humour, overall, the grey skies and bleak aspect of the landscape infect the narrative a little more than makes for an enjoyable read.  I cannot help but compare To Siberia with Repartriated by Adriaan Van Dis which treats a not dissimilar theme and setting with far more humour and interest.

It has been interesting to read something Norwegian for a change, and the book is undoubtedly worthwhile, but not one of the best I have read in recent months.

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