Book Review: I Curse The River Of Time by Per Petterson

Reading Norwegian writer Per Petterson's novels is like looking at family life using complex mathematics.  Which might sound crass, but treating, for example, t for time as a factor, bestows an active role upon elements that more often remain passive in our minds: time, space, distance.  His recognition of these elements as evolving players in their own right makes some other family dramas, in which threads are crisscrossed and tugged to draw to an approximate conclusion, appear inelegant and forced.  We see that pulling too hard on various characters' story lines to make them come together can be destructive to those characters' roots, and this idea is played out metaphorically when Arvid Jensen in the aptly titled I Curse The River Of Time (translated into English by Charlotte Barslund) attempts to repair his relationship with his mother by felling a pine tree that she had always wanted removed from their property, a task his father neglected.  This is an attempt at an equation that doesn't fly in reality, but the sadness of this event doesn't turn Petterson off of trying to make sense of a larger picture.  In the end, we get the impression that he isn't "solving" for anything but rather trying to establish relationships, milestones, and the precise weight of events as they exist for one man.

The book opens with Arvid's mother discovering that she has stomach cancer and making the spontaneous decision to visit her previous home in Denmark.  We quickly become privy to Arvid's inner struggles as he fights to establish himself against the ambiguous auras given off by both of his parents.  Most of the book flips back and forth between two main narratives:  Arvid in the past trying to repair his relationship with his mother after having alienated her by dropping out of college and working in a factory in an attempt to be a good Communist, and Arvid in the "present" still trying to find a way to re-connect with his mother.

We come to see that Arvid takes things more seriously than most people, or at least this is his impression of himself.  He has a strong sense of duty that he feels trapped by, and in fact fails to leave his mother at their old summer house where he has followed her, even after having told himself that there is no reason for him to be there.  In his Communist past, we see him behaving in a similar way with his (possibly) wife-to-be.  Despite his genuine feelings for her, I began to think (though Patterson conveys this with a very light hand) that he felt a sense of duty first, and probably continued to feel that way throughout their marriage.  His relationship with Communism reveals his character further:  He is the only one of his classmates who has the guts to follow their ideals to the letter and go to work in a factory, which his parents resent him for because this way of life is a choice whereas for them it was the only thing offered.

Even so, we come to see Arvid's mother as someone who manages to make plenty of choices of her own.  Despite Arvid's laments that he does not want to be like his father, that he knows that he is more like his father and the idea is horrifying to him, it seems that his specific brand of stubbornness may be a maternal inheritance, that his unwavering loyalty to the Party which causes his mother to slap him may be cut from the same pattern as her later decision to take off for her childhood home without first consulting her husband.  In this way, Arvid's actions may not be as helpless as he himself perceives them.  We also see that Arvid and his mother are connected, even at the most difficult times, by a fondness for particulars.  When he goes to visit her at the summer house, he goes out of his way to purchase a bottle of Calvados because he knows she will appreciate the allusion to Remarque's Arch of Triumph, a book they have both read and talked about.  This gift is in fact the one thing that she does seem to appreciate.  Taking down the pine tree, she tells him, was something he owed his father anyway.

The mother-son relationship is so central to the story in I Curse The River Of Time that at one point when Arvid refers to his father in the past tense and then corrects himself, saying "I mean, he was not dead or anything," I actually became confused for a second, because I had forgotten that his father was not in fact dead.  I wondered if this was intentional, if Patterson had intended to have the reader forget that the father was ostensibly still alive and even still married to Arvid's mother.  This is another characteristic of the way Patterson writes about families that I find refreshing; the story is so focused on what he wants to tell you that it almost seems unimportant whether a minor character is dead or not.  And yet that detail, the very fact that we may have forgotten, is important.  A story involving family life can fully form without having to pay homage first and foremost to the family structure; if homage is paid to anything here it is the circumstances that pull and hold people apart without them even necessarily realizing it, and the choices that they quietly make in the process, albeit unconsciously.

I like to consider Patterson's writing as bedtime stories for adults; it eliminates monsters by means of balance and cancellation.  He methodically removes those things that are not true, leaving a clearer (if exponentially smaller) idea of what may in fact be true.  Highly recommended.  Excerpt here.

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