Book Review | Out Stealing Horses

Rose Lapira reviews a Norwegian tale of war, loss and silence.

Can we truly say that we know European contemporary authors or that Maltese authors are well known in the rest of Europe? Hardly.  For unless we are gifted with a penchant for languages, lesser mortals usually have to read books in translation as decided by UK and American publishing houses.

Fortunately, there is an ever increasing awareness of what is being produced on the busy European contemporary scene and more and more books are being translated into English.

It is important to acknowledge the role of the translator and the publishers who support them. The British newspaper The Independent, some time back, set up the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to honour contemporary fiction in translation in the UK. The prize acknowledges not only the important role of the novelist but also of the translator, who are both awarded £5,000 each.

We sorely need such a setup here in Malta if the Maltese author is to be known outside our shores. Hopefully, the Malta Council for Culture and the Arts, which is working on a literary translation project, will bear fruit soon.

A short but powerful book, Out Stealing Horses by Norwegian author Per Petterson, translated by Ann Born (poet, critic and historian) won the Foreign Fiction prize in 2006. It won also the International Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2007 and the NY Times Book Review named it as one of the 10 best books of the year.

Per Petterson became an international best selling author when this novel – his fifth – was released in English.

In quiet, spare prose, this gifted novelist tells the tale of a solitary man coming to grips with his past. Seeking solitude, the protagonist, Trond, a 67-year-old widower, retreats to a cabin in the far east of Norway.His peace is shattered when he discovers that his neighbour is Lars, whom he knew in childhood.

He is the surviving twin of an accidental shooting that took place more than 50 years before which left a devastating impact on both boys and their families.  

Trond is forced to remember the tragic events of the summer of 1948 and to come to terms with the realities of the war, and the disappearance of his beloved father, a courier for the resistance.

‘We were going out stealing horses. That was what he said, standing at the door to the cabin where I was spending the summer with my father. I was 15. It was 1948 and one of the first days of July.’ What started as an adolescent prank, riding on ‘borrowed’ horses turns into tragedy. ‘Out stealing horses’ was also the password for the activity of the resistance. 

  A household tragedy and events during World War II are both at the centre of this novel.

The war is embedded deep in the Norwegian psyche, and Petterson feels the compulsion to express the difficulties of the occupation. His parents lived through the war – some fought in the resistance during the German occupation – so it is inevitable that since the story takes place in 1948, the war plays an important role in the novel.

The author is no stranger to tragedy. He had a close encounter with great personal tragedy when he lost both parents, a brother and a niece, when the Scandinavian Star Ferry sailing from Oslo to Friderikshavn burned in 1990 and 159 people died. Perhaps this accounts for the author’s self-confessed love for solitude and silence. The novel is filled with silences – the silence of a sparsely populated country and the ever present silence between characters. 

There is little dialogue and what is left unsaid is more important than what is actually said. Even the natural world is seen as a spacious haven where one can find peace and quiet. The author can paint the mood of a landscape in a single sentence. His descriptions are plain but precise pictures of forest and river, snow and sunlight and convey the grandeur of the Norwegian scenery.

While this novel is thoroughly marinated in a Norwegian background, the author speaks with such a modest, simple and eloquent voice that he succeeds in reaching out to our own experience of life. After all, this is what a good novel should be all about.

Here we have a European author who gives us an opportunity to understand the hopes and fears of another nation and in the process discover ourselves within a truly European context.