I Curse the River of Time
By Per Petterson, Trans. Charlotte Barslund
It’s the fall of 1989 and although he doesn’t know it yet, Arvid Jansen’s life is in shambles. His wife is leaving him. His mother, just diagnosed with cancer, will die in a little over a week. The Berlin Wall is days from falling. On the cusp of these upheavals, Arvid—a fervent communist who left college to work in a factory—remains firmly entrenched in his own suffering. Discovering that his mother left Oslo alone to return to her small Danish hometown, he follows her, uninvited. He finds her sitting on a beach. “I knew she was ill, she might even die,” he recalls. “…[A]nd yet I said: ‘Mother, I’m getting a divorce.'”
Balancing regret with resignation, Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time is a novel in which the clarity of hindsight offers little comfort. Petterson set himself a high bar with his previous novel, the cathartic and introspective Out Stealing Horses. But he is unquestionably at his best in this newest work, a frank meditation on the youthful missteps and crippling self-absorption which have defined one man’s life.
“I am not Arvid Jansen,” Petterson has stated, but there is no doubt that this richly realized character is a natural conduit for the author’s own experiences: shades of Petterson’s family history have colored all of his works. Arvid was first introduced in In the Wake, which fictionalized the 1990 ferry disaster that killed two of Petterson’s brothers and both of his parents. Petterson also explored his mother’s childhood in Nazi-occupied Denmark in To Siberia; his distant father is a recurrent figure in many of his novels.
It is only natural then that a familial relationship—between Arvid and his mother—grounds I Curse the River of Time. A dedicated reader of three languages, Arvid’s mother never went to college, but rather spent her life working in a chocolate factory. When Arvid announces that he is leaving school to join the proletariat—despite his suspicions that “the working class I spoke of was not quite the same one my mother and father belonged to”—their relationship is irrevocably damaged.
In the course of Arvid’s recollections, however, it becomes clear that the maternal rejection he subsequently feels was the consequence of many previous injuries, not simply one choice. He is openly resentful of his father, an uneducated factory worker who went out of his way to get Arvid a job at the paper mill where he once made a living. When his younger brother dies, he wonders, watching his mother mourn, “…if I were the one… dying… would she be so unconditionally absorbed by what was happening to me?”
Petterson’s lovely prose draws the reader into Arvid’s mind, into a slow-building quasi-monologue where the simplest observation—stated almost plainly—becomes poetic. He describes “trees by the streams blown bare,” and hospital rooms “painted white, painted apple green.” Offset by Arvid’s fumbling, comical pronouncements—”I hated Stalin, he had ruined everything”—these lyrical passages attest to the sharp insight that Arvid has finally attained. Stranded in the present, Arvid can only now appreciate the missed opportunities of even the most troubled days of his young life. “Life lay ahead of me,” he realizes. “Nothing had been settled.”