Per Petterson's new novel, I Curse the River of Time, is a tricky one to review. As it's a subtle and tricky book, that's probably to be expected. The title is emblematic of the book's swerves. "I curse the river of time" is, says the novel's narrator, Arvid, a phrase from a poem by Chairman Mao's poem Shaoshan Revisited. In the novel, the first two lines of the poem are given as:
Fragile images of departure, the village back then. I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
Arvid, once a fervent Marxist, imagines Mao sitting at his desk writing the poem, lost in nostalgia for the past. But in a more faithful translation of Mao's poem, the lines are rendered:
Like a dim dream recalled, I curse the long-fled past - My native soil two and thirty years gone by.
Mao hated the past - the oppression that was part of his childhood, the abuse that workers had to bear when he was younger. For Mao, the past, not time, is the nightmare.
Arvid's mistranslation is crucial to understanding his character. He wavers between the (not quite lost) idealistic world view of a Marxist true believer and the reality of his own working-class upbringing. Throughout the novel, the people of the "working class" refuse to behave as Arvid would like them to, and he's stuck between two almost irreconcilable things: the Marxist idea of the working class and the working class itself. As a result, Arvid isn't so much an unreliable narrator as he is a bewildered one.
The other significant aspect of the title is its reference to water. I Curse the River of Time is adrift in water imagery. People are on ferries, they're on the beach by the ocean, they row through the thin ice on a river. Water is symbol and reality, and even a narrative "model." The novel is Arvid's recounting of the past. Most of it is set in 1989, a year that has both political and personal significance for Arvid. It is the year the Berlin wall fell, of course, but it is also the year Arvid's mother died.
As one would expect, the novel has a thin wire of grief running through it. But the past isn't told in a straightforward way. An incident will be mentioned and, then, some unpredictable time later, it will come back again, seen from a different angle. In other words, moments from the past come into the narrative and go out again as if on a tide, slightly different at each "sighting."
Now, that might sound a little intellectual and cold, but I Curse the River of Time is resolutely emotional. First, though it's a novel whose narrator has read a great deal - and who mentions quite a number of the books he's read - it's also one in which characters struggle to quell their emotions. Arvid - self-absorbed and childish - mostly loses this struggle. In a way, it's the one thing that makes him bearable. He's hopelessly and, in some moments, weirdly emotional. Second, the novel's structure allows for some very peculiar "comedy." One chapter in particular is striking - Arvid visits his brother in the hospital.
"He was lost, I could see that right away, it was not him breathing, it was this machine that pushed air into his lungs in a way no human being had ever breathed. … The machine looked evil, it was hurting him, it was beating his body, and he could not defend himself, could not stop the hammering, for he was lost. But my mother sat by his side holding his one hand in both of hers, and she was not crying, she only said: 'my boy,' she said, 'my boy,' she said, and she was completely absorbed by what was happening …"
The writing here, like the writing throughout, is very good. But the striking aspect of the chapter is elsewhere. One moment, overcome by grief, Arvid turns away from his brother's body and looks out the window of the hospital. Beneath him, he sees a boy running around a corner of the building, playing, you think, and perhaps representative of life going on amid tragedy. A bit of a cliché, but okay. Only at the end of the chapter do you realize, along with Arvid, that the boy running was Arvid's youngest brother, and his running was not play but, rather, a desperate attempt to ward off grief by exhausting himself. It's a scene characteristic of the novel itself: A thing is seen once, misunderstood and then, on its return, grasped in a way that changes everything. At times, the sudden change of perspective works as punchlines do, but the effect is, of course, different.
I Curse the River of Time has any number of things to recommend it: humour, psychological complexity, an affecting fidelity to its setting (Oslo, for the most part), an unpredictable narrator. But it doesn't have much forward momentum. What story there is comes in pieces. Certainly, it's a book writers will admire because, technically, it's accomplished. It will, however, tax the patience of anyone looking for "entertainment." The book is worth it, but it'll cost you.
Contributing reviewer André Alexis's essay collection, Beauty & Sadness, has just been published.