Arvid, the protagonist of this Norwegian novel, is fifty now, and he has witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, and the demise of Communism, along with major changes in his own life and in the lives of his family members. This character novel opens in the middle of a swirl of Arvid’s memories: time has flashed back to 1989, and Arvid is thirty-seven, at a major crossroads in his life, the details of which evolve slowly.
Taking an oblique approach, author Per Petterson embeds Arvid’s story within these memories, conveying them in language which twists and turns in upon itself while slowly moving forward in strong, musical cadences. Vibrant imagery, some of it symbolic, connects past, distant past, and present, as Arvid’s story, propelled by his recollections of family relationships and his own life choices, evolves to show how he became the person he is.
As the novel begins, Arvid’s mother has just discovered that she has a recurrence of cancer, and she has decided to take the ferry from Norway back to her “home,” on Jutland. Arvid has had a testy relationship with his mother over the years and has not talked with her in a while, trying to avoid telling her that he and his wife are getting a divorce, but when he gets a message that his mother has left home, he, too, takes the ferry to Jutland to see her. During this time, he is inundated with memories, which come, seemingly at random, from different times in his life.
Throughout, however, Arvid returns to stories of his mother, who, though hard pressed for cash herself, still gave him money when he was in college, but who, when he decided to leave college and give up his chance to escape the kind of life she and her husband had been living, smacked him, hard, across his face. On his trip to Jutland, he sees constant change and sees that even the “permanence” of the local cemetery is impermanent: a grave marker is routinely vandalized. Homely details and intense descriptions of nature give weight and importance to Arvid’s experiences and what they reveal of him.
Though Arvid is coolly reserved and often tamps down his feelings, the reader comes to know him, understanding his mixed feelings about his mother while also recognizing his need for her, accepting his distance from his father while regretting their lack of connection, accepting his decisions even when they seem to be wrong for him, and seeing the effects of change upon him at every stage of his life. Often ineffective in his actions, clumsy in expressing his inner feelings, especially in matters of love, and unable to give himself fully to others, Arvid lacks the stature of a “hero.” It is in this very characteristic, however-his imperfect humanity-that he comes to life, becoming a character so real that even the author has said (in an interview on PowellsBooks), “Sometimes I call him not my alter ego but my stunt man.”
What redeems “River of Time” is Petterson’s command of incident and prose. His prose is at once unflashy and gorgeous. There are many beautifully rendered episodes (each reviewer here on Amazon seems to have his or her favorite). One is the lyrically described November stay at a country cabin where Arvid and his then girl friend spent a cold afternoon rowing a boat through the thinly iced lake. The author’s easeful way of pulling philosophical reflections from commonplace events is on display as well. When Arvid takes a friend’s dog to the vet to be euthanized, his imagination breaks free: “What worried me was that no one had asked if the dog was really mine. It felt unsafe, ambiguous; anything could happen, to anyone, if the one it was happening to had a trusting heart.”
If you decide to read “I Curse the River of Time” as your introduction to Petterson, please know that the gifts you receive from it will be more than matched if you experience, next, “Out Stealing Horses.”
I Curse the River of Time; Petterson, Per; Graywolf Press; $23.00