Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I Curse the River of Time

I Curse the River of Time, by Per Petterson, is as dreamy as his previous novel Out Stealing Horses, which I enjoyed. But it doesn't really go anywhere; it meanders for a while and then peters out.

This passage is what the entire novel is like, in miniature:
"The chill from the sea across my face. Clouds drifting. I felt cold inside my father's sweater. I stood with my back to the hedge and Hansen's summer house, and I was thinking about Inger, whom I had kissed behind that hedge. I remember her mouth, how it tasted strange, almost good, but I did not know what to do next. I was thirteen years old, and she was fourteen, and we lay in the loft reading Nick Carter books. Nick was smoking in the living room. He looked out of the window. He turned and stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray with a button in the middle you could press down and it would spin and the butt would disappear. Nick crossed the floor and pulled the blonde up from the sofa, carried her into the bedroom and threw her on the bed. 'Wouldn't you like to be in his place?' Inger said. 'Yes,' I said, but I had no idea what she meant.

The plot centers around the main character's, Arvid's, decision to give up university in favor of going to work in a factory as a good communist, the break this causes with his mother, his disappointment when the Berlin wall falls, and his regret over the pain he has caused his mother when he learns she is dying. Aside from a lot of drinking, remembering, and looking out of windows, though, Arvid doesn't do much about the situation he has created.

The title comes from a poem by Mao which begins:
"Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed."
Arvid says he likes this poem because "it showed the human Mao." He is continually looking for human connection and finding that the possibilities are diminished by the constraints of his communist principles.

Perhaps because this is a well-worn theme for a 21st-century American reader, or perhaps because the translation, by Charlotte Barslund with the author's help, falls short of the mark, Arvid's aimlessness seems as much cause as effect. I can't work up much sympathy for a character whose reaction to the destruction of his view of the world is expressed only as "This was bad, I had not paid attention, it was really bad, and I started to cry." I don't understand the motivations of a character who doesn't even recognize a friend who "had gone to the quay every single morning for a week, or maybe longer, to wait in case I did arrive that very day," but punches him because when the friend starts forward to greet him, Arvid suddenly becomes afraid that this apparent stranger is going to attack him.

Arvid doesn't seem fully human. It's no surprise that he says "there was a void between me and the other workers in the hall" because he doesn't relate to anyone as an individual. His sad and pointless end is apparent from the beginning of his embrace of communism, and there's no revelation in the way his fate plays out before him, no catharsis in reading about how his feelings change. I curse the time I wasted getting to know him.

12 comments:

FreshHell said...

Ugh. No thanks. I think I've seen "art films" like this book.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I think I'll pass. But the title reminded me of Eric Ewazen's oboe concerto "Down the River of Time," which I love but haven't heard in a while. I recommend it, if you don't know it. Perhaps it will ease the pain.

readersguide said...

Oooh. Out Stealing Horses was so good, although also kind of dreamy. And the second one, whose title escapes me, perhaps showed a bit of sort of drifting nowhere. Perhaps it is very difficult to be a Norwegian and a communist?

Jenny said...

Yeesh. Shame. And with such a good title!

Lori L said...

Oh dear... I loved Out Stealing Horses. I guess I'll skip this one.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I had in mind a certain "art film" of the 80's when I quoted the bit about people standing around smoking.

Harriet, I'll look for it. Yesterday's mail brought us a copy of the last thing you recommended!

Readersguide, yes, it must be difficult. There are several bits about how Danes can't tell Norwegians from Swedes.

Jenny and Lori, I would skip this one.

Karen said...

Bleargh. Sounds like a waste of good reading time.

Jeanne said...

Karen, that pretty much sums it up!

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Hooray! But I don't remember what it was!

Jeanne said...

Harriet, it's Sumo of the Opera! Pursuant to a conversation on another venue.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

Oh, yes. I hope you like it!

Melissa said...

I'm in the middle of this one now and debating chalking it up as a DNF. Your last line helped seal that decision for me. :)