Per Petterson has written a number of great books, not only Out Stealing Horses. His international breakthrough, however, came with Out Stealing Horses. It is a great novel, and excellently translated as well. The English translation was perhaps even better than the original Norwegian text.
I Curse the River of Time, titled after a poem by Mao, has many of the same literary qualities. It tells a story of grief at lost opportunities in a melancholic, wise manner, full of quiet compassion and tenderness. It is written in much the same way – understated, a little distanced, and full of intriguing observations.
I Curse the River of Time has already received a number of prestigious awards and prizes. In Norway it won the 2008 Critics’ Prize and the 2008 Brage Prize. And in 2009 it won the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize. Deservedly so, in my opinion.
The book starts with the fall of Communism in Europe, in 1989. Arvid Jansen, a character who has also appeared in other of Per Petterson’s books – the first time in Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes – is now 37 years old. He is about to get divorced. At the same time, his mother is diagnosed with cancer. Arvid’s world is shaking in its foundations.
We follow Arvid as he struggles to find a new footing. It is not easy for him, as the changes occur in a seemingly furious pace. And as he attempts to negotiate and come to terms with the new present, his mind travel back and forth in time. There is much to reconcile. He remembers holidays on the beach with his brothers, courtship, and his early working life. He remembers when as a young Communist he abandoned his studies to work on a production line, and how his mother could not understand it.
Arvid’s relationship to his mother plays a prominent part in I Curse the River of Time, just as Trond’s relationship to his father was in focus in Out Stealing Horses. It is a complicated relationship. They love each other deeply and are very close. Yet time over and time again they reject one another, do the opposite of what the other expect and want. Act against their feelings. In a sense caught is a dialectic movement of opposites in a contradiction. And now his mother is dying, but is still every bit as independent as ever.
I Curse the River of Time is an honest, intelligent and very heartbreaking, yet also humorous portrayal of a complicated mother-son relationship. It is told in Petterson’s very enjoyable, artful and precise prose. Like Out Stealing Horses, this book too quietly grows on you while you read, and somehow takes a firm grip on you. It is a book that provides much food for thought and one that stayed with me for a long time. It flows smoothly down the river of time, in a very pleasing fashion!
Praise for Per Petterson:
“Rife with beautiful incantatory moments.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Petterson’s spare and deliberate prose has astonishing force.” —The New Yorker
“Reading a Petterson novel is like falling into a northern landscape painting—all shafts of light and clear palpable chill.” —Time
“Per Petterson’s novels are novels you wait for. Once again he has written a novel where the dark secrets of life are magically illuminated.” —Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Germany
“His best book so far. (…) I Curse the River of Time is the powerful story of a great sin of omission, so well made that it is even more captivating than other books by Petterson in German. (…) A wonderful, melancholic book” —Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Germany
“Petterson’s mother and son story, written in such a tender and accurate way, (…) is moving and agonizingly beautiful. … like any great piece of art, it shines in the dark like a distant and mysterious light.” —Die Welt, Germany