I Curse the River of Time-Per Petterson
In 1989, 37-year-old Arvid Jansen's marriage is ending and his mother is dying of cancer. Hoping to leave his marital woes behind in Oslo, Jansen follows his Danish-born mother to her home country, to the beach house where the family spent summers. During the ferry ride and the following days in Denmark, Jansen recalls his childhood bond with his mother and his decision, after two years of college, to leave school and join his fellow Communists in the factories. He struggles with his commitment to communism--the title is a line from a poem by Mao--and with his place in his family and in the larger world. Thankfully, there is neither overt sentimentalism nor a deathbed declaration of love between mother and son, but Petterson blends enough hope with the gorgeously evoked melancholy to come up with a heartbreaking and cautiously optimistic work.
I’ve long been a fan of Ingmar Bergman with a particular love of Seventh Seal. Petterson’s prose reminds me of Bergman’s stark cinematography. This was written without any literary conceits and there’s not an extra word in the whole book. And this was in translation so I can’t imagine the original language is anymore ornate. The sharp and crisp prose thus has an almost detached feel which at times feels odd but is definitely necessary since otherwise this book would end up completely and unrelentingly bleak (in an unreadable way). The prose seems as desolate as the emotional landscape you’re hearing about so directly.
There’s no plot and no real exploration of the mother/son relationship or the divorce except in deep hindsight. Instead the book explored the inter-related life events (like his brother’s death), his mother as a person, and the girl in the blue coat (who probably became his wife). Arvid lurks in the shadow of a brother who died too early in life, though we never quite learn how. He fails at attempts to make something of himself. His desire to be a communist worker is not at all appreciated, given his family’s sacrifice for his fantastic education. He is haunted by the dissolution of his own marriage. He wanders and you wander alongside him.