By Harvey Freedenberg
By Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born (Picador, $15, 238 pages, Paperback)
A frequent criticism leveled at American readers is that we’re reluctant to tackle literature in translation. In the hope of offering a small antidote for that malady, at least to readers of Harrisburg Magazine, I’m writing this month (the fourth anniversary of my “Bookmarks” column) about the Norwegian novelist, Per Petterson, and his spare, beautiful 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses (published in the United States in 2007).
I first encountered Petterson’s work in To Siberia, a novel I described in a 2008 review as the “affecting story of a sister and brother united by love and imagination.” His novel I Curse the River of Time is, as I wrote in 2010, an “evocative still-life portrait of the tender, difficult relationship between a mother and her adult son.” In both books, the often harsh Scandinavia landscape, “from thick blankets of fog to ice-choked seas,” is a pervasive presence. Out Stealing Horses is of a piece with the other novels: rooted in family, elegiac in tone and gorgeous in execution.
The novel is set in a small village in eastern Norway, a short distance from the Swedish border. Its narrative shifts seamlessly between two eras – World War II and its immediate aftermath and the late autumn of 1999. From his vantage point as a retired widower in his late 60s, Trond Sander, the novel’s sober, thoughtful protagonist, reflects principally on the summer he spent with his father in that same village in 1948, when an incident of swift and irrevocable violence and an act of adult betrayal together initiate the young Trond into adulthood. He has returned, he confesses, because “All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this.”
Mirroring the novel’s bifurcated structure, its title has a double meaning. The teenage Trond and his more adventurous friend Jon apply the term to their practice of surreptitiously borrowing horses from a local farmer and then riding them across the countryside. Midway through the novel, we discover the boys have appropriated that label for their escapades from the name Trond’s father and Jon’s mother gave their own efforts in the World War II Resistance, as they smuggled messages, and occasionally refugees, across the border into Sweden.
In the fateful summer that’s at the heart of Trond’s reminiscence, he’s able to watch, even if he only dimly comprehends, the relationship between his taciturn father and Jon’s mother, one that intensifies in the wake of tragedy. All this comes into sharp focus when, on his return to the village as an old man, he encounters Jon’s younger brother, Lars, and is able to revisit his recollection of that time. He understands, finally, that “what my father said and how things really were, were not necessarily the same.”
Instead of becoming “a shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world except his own liquid thoughts where time has lost its sequence,” Trond’s adult memories are precise and observant. “If I just concentrate I can walk into memory’s store,” he acknowledges, “and find the right shelf with the right film and disappear into it.” He neither flees from those memories, painful as some are, nor obsesses over them. Instead, he embraces them with a sober acceptance that’s the product of nearly seven decades of life and an understanding, as he puts it near the end of the novel, that “I have been lucky. I have said that before. But it’s true.”
In detailed descriptions of activities like haying by hand and the felling of a stand of timber to be floated down the river for sale, Petterson excels in depicting the hard, yet satisfying, work of farm life. He’s also adept at painting lovely portraits of the natural world, as Anne Born deftly captures in her lucid translation: “Only cool air on my skin and the scent of resin and timber, and the scent of earth, and a bird whose name I did not know hopping around in a thicket rustling and crackling and sending out a steady stream of thin piping sounds from the dense foliage a few paces from my foot.” Petterson is no literary miniaturist, but he clearly prefers to paint on a smaller canvas to reveal larger truths.
The pace of Out Stealing Horses is measured, at times languid. But if you are a patient reader who enjoys novels constructed on a foundation of finely honed prose deployed with consummate grace to yield keen psychological insights, then Per Petterson may be a writer you’ll be pleased to discover.