I Curse the River of Time [Why This Book Should Win the BTBA]
Similar to years past, we’re going to be featuring each of the 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist over the next month plus, but in contrast to previous editions, this year we’re going to try an experiment and frame all write-ups as “why this book should win.” Some of these entries will be absurd, some more serious, some very funny, a lot written by people who normally don’t contribute to Three Percent. Overall, the point is to have some fun and give you a bunch of reasons as to why you should read at least a few of the BTBA titles.
Click here for all past and future posts.
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson, translated by Charlotte Barslund and the author
Why This Book Should Win: Because it was written by Per Petterson, arguably one of Scandinavia’s finest living writers. The book has already won a slew of prizes. In Norway, it won the 2008 Critics’ Prize and the 2008 Brage Prize. And in 2009 it won the prestigious Nordic Council’s Literary Prize. Why not give it another one?
This post was written K.E. Semmel, a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, World Literature Today, Best European Fiction 2011, and elsewhere. His translation of Karin Fossum’s next novel will be published by Harvill Secker in the UK in 2011 and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US in 2012. And he’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan.
When Per Petterson burst onto the international literary scene in 2007 with his novel Out Stealing Horses, the English-speaking world got a glimpse of what readers in Scandinavia have known for quite a while: Petterson’s work is special. On the dust jacket for this new novel is a quote from Richard Ford: “Per Petterson is a profoundly gifted novelist.” That Ford is a fan of Petterson’s work can be no surprise to readers of each author. Like Ford’s narrators, particularly Frank Bascombe, the narrator of I Curse the River of Time, Arvid Jensen, is a self-reflective man whose story unfolds most powerfully as a kind of internal monologue.
This long passage, in a lively translation by veteran translator Charlotte Barslund, is an example of Petterson’s power as a reflectionist. With a few deftly chosen words he tells us a lot about Arvid Jensen:
And then I entered the hall and walked into the kitchen, the living room, where everything was as it had been for almost ten years, the same posters on the walls, the same rugs on the floor, the same goddamn red armchairs, and yet not like that at all, not like it was in the beginning, when there were just the two of us against the world, just she and I, shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, there is just you and me, we said to each other, just you and me, we said. But something had happened, nothing hung together any more, all things had spaces, had distances between them, like satellites, attracted to and pushed away at the same instant, and it would take immense willpower to cross those spaces, those distances, much more than I had available, much more than I had courage to use. And nothing was like it had been inside the car either, driving through three or four districts in Romerike, in eastern Norway, east of Oslo. There the car was wrapped around me, but up here, in the flat, things fell out of focus and spun off to all sides. It was like a virus on the balance nerve. I close my eyes to true up the world, and then I heard the bathroom door open and her footsteps across the floor. I would have known them anywhere on earth, on any surface, and she stopped right in front of me. I could hear her breath, but not close enough to feel it on my face. She waited. I waited. In one of the bedrooms the girls were laughing out loud. There was something about her breath. It was never like that before. I kept my eyes closed, I squeezed them tightly shut. And then I heard her sigh.
“For Christ’s sake, Arvid,” she said. “Please stop that. It’s so childish.”
Much like Out Stealing Horses, I Curse The River of Time is a novel in which time itself takes on the role of a character, bending backward and forward. The novel interweaves three strands of time:
- a youthful Arvid meeting the girl who would later become his wife versus a thirty-seven year old Arvid whose marriage is in tatters. The above passage comes at a time when Arvid’s marriage is crumbling, but some of the most tender moments of the novel come when the young couple first meet and fall in love:
‘Do I have a tan now?’ she said.
I laughed again. ‘You and I,’ I said. ‘Just you and I.”
‘Isn’t it fun,’ she said and she smiled. I let the oars rest in the rowlocks. The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust.
- a youthful Arvid—a staunch Communist—versus a later, disheartened Arvid following the collapse of the Berlin Wall:
At a kiosk that was still open, there were newspapers stacked on a stand outside, and in large bold typeface on every front page it said THE WALL TUMBLES, and I could not breathe, where had I been? This was bad, I had not paid attention, it was really bad, and I started to cry.
- Arvid’s mother—or Arvid’s youthful memories of his mother—versus her later self. Sick, dying of stomach cancer, she returns to her native Denmark for one last trip. And because Arvid idealizes his mother in the same way he idealized his political views or his feelings for his wife, he follows her there like a child:
I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it. I pulled some straws from a cluster of marram grass and put them in my mouth and started chewing. They were hard and sharp and cut my tongue, and I took more, a fistful, and stuffed them in my mouth and chewed them while I sat there, waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me.
The various strands loop together to form a bold and smart novel, one that portrays the complex relationship between a son and his mother, between time and memory, and finally between the individual and his struggle to find his place in society. Taken together, the novel’s structure may seem deceptively simple, but it is extremely powerful on the whole. Perhaps most impressive of all, however, is that the novel doesn’t telegraph what is to come next; like time and memory, it does not flow in a straight line: it jumps from A to D and back to A. As such, it’s a novel that invites the reader to ask questions. Why are we back here, at this point in time? What does this have to do with his mother’s journey to Denmark? These are simple questions, but they are certainly not simple answers, and, at times, you may find yourself wondering where Petterson is going with his story. Yet it’s precisely this which makes I Curse the River of Time so special: In this novel, Petterson writes with venerable authority, like a master unafraid to try new, ever-bolder moves. By the end of the novel you know exactly where he’s going with his story, and you know exactly where you’ve been. And it’s quite a trip.