Book Review | I Curse The River Of Time

Returning to the Norwegian author after enjoying his short fiction, Rose Lapira is captivated by Per Petterson's poignant novel about a complex mother-daughter relationship.

Nowegian novelist Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time presents a complex portrayal of a mother-son relationship.
Nowegian novelist Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time presents a complex portrayal of a mother-son relationship.


Some buy a book because of the cover or the blurb. Others are influenced by reviews. I often buy books according to their author. Like many others, I was impressed by Norwegian author Per Petterson when I read Out Stealing Horses. This was a small literary gem.

That is why recently I read I Curse the River of Time by the same author, translated into English by Charlotte Barslund and the author. I suppose many would have been attracted as well, by the eye catching title. This comes from a poem by Mao Tsetung:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then.

I curse the river of time; thirty two years have passed.

In this novel Per Petterson depicts a Northern world, very foreign to the Mediterranean one, and yet one can empathise with the lonely soul of the Scandinavian protagonist.

The novel is set in 1989, when important events are taking place in the life of Arvid Jansen. His marriage is over, his mother is dying, and the Berlin wall is coming down. Arvid feels lost. He cannot understand what is taking place around him and he falls on memories of past events to try to comprehend the present.

'I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it.' His sense of loss is acute. 'I am 37 years old. The Wall has fallen. And here I sit.'

He remembers his communist membership and admiration for Mao, and how he abandoned his university studies to follow his beliefs and become a factory worker - much to the chagrin of his mother, who had worked hard all her life in similar factories. 

Arvid accompanies his sick mother on a final trip to her birth place in Denmark, and yet he cannot really communicate with her at all. Though deeply aware that she had always preferred her other sons to him, he tries to bridge the gulf between them, but both are incapable of communicating their feelings. 'She did not pay attention. She turned her attention to other things.' Petterson presents a sensitive portrayal of a complex mother-son relationship.

Arvid hungers for his mother's love and this encounter is his last chance to show his feelings. His mother is a strong but dour character who has had little patience with her 'weakling' son. Now, faced with the prospect of imminent death, none can breach the gulf that separates them.

Petterson describes the characters of mother and son with great insight. By the end of the book, we literally get under Arvid's skin. We know that he is standing on the edge of a precipice. I had read somewhere that fiction is not exciting unless you sense an abyss beneath the characters, and this is what Petterson depicts so masterfully in this novel.

This is a moving story, finely written in the author's typically spare and lucid style. It is filled with silences. There is little dialogue, but what is left unsaid is more important than what is actually said. The novel has beautifully sensitive passages showing insight into the frailty of the human condition.

Reflecting on death, Arvid's only preoccupation is that he will pass away without having been the person he had really wanted to be, and which he knew he could have been.  Faced with death, 'you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person that you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember'. He had wanted to be different from his parents. 'I wanted to make a difference but I did not, and it suddenly dawned on me that what I had tried to do might not be possible... I was a man out of time.'

Petterson is no stranger to tragedy, for he lost both his parents and brother when the ferry between Oslo and Friderikshaven burned and sank in 1990. But it speaks about the resilience and optimism of the man, who made it to the top not only in his country, but went on to become an internationally acclaimed author.

One feels that parts of the author's life manage to creep into his writing, and perhaps this is why Petterson makes us aware that a glimmer of optimism still prevails for the protagonist's future despite a rather sad period in his life.

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