“I Refuse” by Per Petterson [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Joseph Schreiber, who runs the website Rough Ghosts, and is a contributor at Numéro Cinq. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Norway, Graywolf Press)
As a rule I drove home before the first cars came down the hill towards the bridge, but today I had frittered my time away. I hadn’t even started to pack my bag, and the cars that were coming were classy cars, expensive cars. I turned my back to the road, my navy blue reefer jacket wrapped tightly round me. I’d had that jacket ever since I was a boy in Mørk, and only one of the old brass buttons was still intact, and I had a woollen cap on as blue as the jacket, pulled down over my ears, so from behind I could have been anyone.
Norwegian author Per Petterson’s I Refuse opens in the predawn hours of a September day with the chance encounter between two childhood friends, Jim and Tommy. Now in their mid-fifties, more than thirty years have passed since they last saw each other. Jim, the sensitive and more intellectually inclined of the two, has struggled with mental illness and, as we meet him engaging in his early morning fishing ritual, he has exhausted a year of sick leave after an unsuccessful attempt to return to work as a librarian. He is nearing the end of his emotional tether. Tommy, who dropped out of school at 16 to work at a mill, has benefited from some shrewd investments and a head for numbers, and has worked his way up to a high level position in a financial investment firm in Oslo. However his life, with his fancy clothing and new Mercedes, is hollow. Both men have failed marriages behind them, and lack meaningful relationships. Over the course of the day that follows this early morning meeting, each man will face his own simmering internal crisis and reach differing critical convictions.
While the experiences and reflections of his two main protagonists on this fateful September day, form the central core of the narrative, Petterson employs a winding chronology and a variety of perspectives and characters to frame the peculiar circumstances that helped forge the original bond between Jim and Tommy, and trace the fractured pathways that each has followed after Jim’s attempted suicide, at the age of nineteen, initiated events that drove them apart.
Growing up in a semi-rural region outside a small town, the boys have very different backgrounds. Jim is the only son of an evangelical Christian single mother whereas Tommy comes from a family almost surreal in its dysfunction. He has a sister, Siri, with whom he has an exceptionally close relationship, bordering on incest, and two much younger twin sisters. Their mother disappears off into the snowy distance one night in 1964, leaving the children at the mercy of their violent father. Tommy suffers the abuse until one day an especially brutal beating drives him to break his father’s leg with a bat, effectively forcing this parent out of their lives as well. It is 1966 and he is just shy of fourteen years old. The children try to manage on their own but social services intervene—the twins go to one family in town, Siri is sent to live with another, and Tommy moves in with Jonson, the owner of the mill. From this point on, Jim and Tommy are inseparable as they face the joys and challenges of adolescence together.
Prose as spare and luminous as the northern Norwegian setting, grounds this exploration of time and friendship, loss and longing. First person narratives carried, in turn, by the two main characters are interspersed with cameos from select supporting actors and segments narrated from an open indirect third person perspective. These shifts enhance the melancholy, meditative atmosphere, as in this scene set soon after Tommy’s family has been dismantled:
At the top, near the dam, the bikes were leaned against the railings and they stood by the bikes and leaned against the railing and looked down into the waterfall, and Tommy ran his fingers carefully over the eyebrow and the long gash along it, and over the scabs on his cheek and said, sometimes you feel like jumping, don’t you, just feel jumping over and sailing out like a bird. I know, Jim said, just climb up on to the railings and dive. My mother says it isn’t dangerous to jump off and fly, you can jump off a skyscraper if you like, and it isn’t dangerous. It’s the landing that’s the problem. I’ve heard that one before, Tommy said. I know Jim said. Everyone’s heard it.
Like countless other readers my first introduction to the work of Per Petterson was with his masterful novel Out Stealing Horses which won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. I went on to read everything that was available at the time, and watch eagerly for new releases as well as the long awaited translations of earlier works that began to appear. With I Refuse, his sixth novel, we see a writer at the height of his powers. The themes that drive Petterson’s creative vision—absent or distant parents, male friendship, the bond between siblings, childhood loss and emotional injury, secrets and unspoken tensions—are all revisited here in his broadest, darkest, and most complex work to date. And in Don Bartlett he has, I would argue, a perfectly matched translator. Bartlett captures this novel’s stark beauty, brooding tone, and shifting voices cleanly and effortlessly.
Petterson’s gift lies in his ability to penetrate to the heart of his protagonists’ insecurities, hopes, and longings. His characters are often haunted by memories, repressed emotions, and by the many things that have been left unsaid or unspeakable. I Refuse introduces us to two men who, over the course of the day that begins with their unexpected meeting on a bridge, are faced with circumstances that will either alter or reinforce the trajectories of their lives. Tommy’s day includes a call from the police asking him to come and collect his father—after forty years his father is alive and needs his assistance. Their reunion is, as one might imagine, charged with unresolved tension but marks a critical turning point for the son:
We both knew why he limped and we had forgotten nothing, repressed nothing, but we weren’t supposed to talk about it, no, that was the trick, instead we would just look at each other with maybe a quick smile on our lips and share that knowledge, that memory, as though it was something that was ours together, his and mine, something intimate and violent, a secret, burning bond that held us together, a bond of blood.
Then I stood up. No peace, I thought, nothing that binds us together. I refuse.
As the day turns into night, Petterson pulls his narrative into the third person, raising the tension as the two men reach their distinct states of resolve. Will their paths collide again or will it be too late? The true power of this work lies in Petterson’s skill and confidence in the reader to leave the space for ambiguity and hint at the possible dynamics that drive the characters without feeling the need to answer all the questions or resolve all the mysteries. He is content to leave us with equal measures of hope and despair, light and gloom. The powerful timelessness of this mesmerizing tale is perhaps the strongest justification for recognizing this achievement with the Best Translated Book Award.