Sunday, December 09, 2007
Out Stealing Horses: Per Petterson
This novel was widely acclaimed last year and in fact won a few prizes, including the IMPAC prize in 2007. Written by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson, the novel has been hailed as lyrical and stunning, with an excellent translation by Anne Born. I don't remember reading anything ever before by a Norwegian novelist and I must admit the title seemed discouraging. However, I have been much impressed by this novel, and the translation is perhaps one of the real highlights.
The narrator of the story is a 67 year old man, living in remote Norway, almost in a forest, of his own accord. Trond, as he is called, introduces himself and the elements of his story in a slow, deliberate and seemingly realistic manner, and it is his chance encounter with a neighbour that sets into motion his reverie or his memories of the past. Perhaps Trond has escaped to the inhospitable winter of Norway, away from the very memories this man, also nearly as old, has evoked inside him. What then follows is a narrative that is interspersed with his past recollections as he tries to explain his present motivation to live in harsh circumstances. Trond is a widower, having lost his wife in a crash in which he survived. Now all that he wants is to live alone, away, buried in a way, free perhaps and keep himself company. Trond thus doesn't have a TV, though he has a radio, and he tries in going about his activities in as unfussy a manner as possible.
Trond tells of his past, his friendship with a boy called Jon, with whom he once went stealing horses, his relationship with his father or sometimes lack of it and his desire, even though subtle for Jon's mother, who is called Jon's mother throughout. He reminisces about the time of the German occupation, his father's cabin, their work in the forest, as lumberjacks, log running and so on. In between, there is tragedy at Jon's house, which sees Jon departing forever.
One of the important aspects of this novel, without which it doesn't stand, is the atmospheric description of this lonely and cold landscape, near the border with Sweden. The descriptions are detailed, almost sketch like and it perhaps also allows the interplay of the weather, geography and surrounding elements weave on to the participating characters, who are not only close but also far from each other, held and hemmed in by the arc of their lives, weather, professions and so on. The descriptions of the lumbing work are elaborate and sometimes tedious and difficult to follow but I believe much is revealed of the inner psychological motives of the people involved, in a drama that has far reaching consequences for almost 2 different generations.
The style of narration is that of wistful, almost tender melancholy, as if remembering the past is unmanly, and remembering it poetically is unmanly too. However, the true merit of real narrative fiction lies in the poetic qualities that should not be too obvious and here Petterson has really crafted a work that is worth reading from that point of view. One does get the feeling that perhaps the pace could be a bit more slick, fast, but then I thought maybe Trond doesn't want to tell a story that way, and maybe I might have to slow down myself. There are elements of suspense and real drama in this story and at times it works well as a thriller, with German soldiers casually shooting bullets at amateur poetic spies in Norwegian forests.
This novel is not about stealing and hardly about horses. It looks at this man who wants to live on his own, away from his past. In other words he is escaping, which is not possible and perhaps might be in psychological denial which is always easy. I am not sure if he achieves the end in the fashion that he wants, for memories can visit us anywhere and we too can never end searching them. But, it is an attempt nonetheless. As a story and as a well written one, this novel stands out. What this novel actually achieves in the end is debatable, or maybe it is not supposed to do that at all. May be Trond would not like us to see it in that light. As I said earlier, the landscape descriptions are the key in this book. For instance:
"There was the scent of new-felled timber. It spread from the track-side to the river, it filled the air and drifted across the water and penetrated everything everywhere and made me numb and dizzy. I was in the thick of it all. I smelled of resin, my clothes smelled, and my hair smelled, and my skin smelled of resin when I lay in my bed at night. I went to sleep with it and woke up with it and it stayed with me all day long. I was forest".
Trond weaves and weaves the reader in and out of the swing of his memories, of harsh loves and strange decisions, of un-understandable acts of fate ( he does not believe in destiny) of losing and coming together, of coincidences and accidents. The secluded respite he chooses is his way, his answer. I think this novel is extremely readable and quite melancholic, and in the descriptive passages, reminds one of Sebald. Trond tells us in the end that "we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt". Apart from disagreeing with that observation and with his choice of reading Dickens at night, I found his narrative quite compelling.
A good review here.