In the Wake, by Per Petterson
This must have been an extremely difficult novel to write, was my first reaction to this book. Per Petterson lost his cousin, his brother, and his parents the fire on the passenger ferry “Scandinavian Star” on April 7th, 1990. 159 people were killed in the accident.
Bibliography, Per Petterson
- 2008 Jeg forbanner tidens elv I Curse the River of Time
- 2004 Månen over Porten The Moon Above the Gate
- 2003 Ut og stjæle hester Out Stealing Horses
- 2000 I kjølvannet In the Wake
- 1996 Til Sibir To Siberia
- 1992 Det er greit for meg It's Fine by Me
- 1989 Ekkoland Echoland
- 1987 Aske i munnen, sand i skoa Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes
Prizes and Honors:
- Nordic Council's Literary Prize 2009
- The Brage Prize 2000 & 2008
- Critics' Prize 2003 & 2008
- International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award 2007
- One of the 10 Best Fiction Books of 2007, New York Times
- One of the 10 Best Fiction Books of 2007, Time Magazine
- A New York Library Book to Remember 2007
- Le Prix Mille Pages 2007
- Le Prix Litteraire Europeen Madeleine Zepter 2007
- The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2006
- Booksellers' Prize 2003
In the Wake is a powerful novel, presumably to a large extent autobiographical, that deals with the problems involved in coming to grips with terrible and meaningless events like this one. The novel is excellently written and has won several literary prizes in Europe.
The main character in the novel is Arvid Jansen, aged 43. He has been more or less unable recover after losing his parents and two younger brothers in a ferry accident six years earlier, and is still grieving. What to some extent makes it even harder for him, is that he actually should have been on the same trip. Why wasn't he?
After the accident, his life has changed dramatically. His wife has divorced him. He is estranged from his two young daughters. He is more or less unable to write and he hardly speaks to anyone. He is afraid of ties to other people: “I do not know if I want family anymore. It is too risky.”
Per Petterson takes us into the mind of Arvid. Into its emptiness and its the pain. It feels very real. We are with him as he rambles through his days, seemingly without purpose or direction. “I feel the sun on my neck, it is burning or something is burning, and maybe it is Sunday. I don’t remember. I see only my eyes in the glass and the books beyond, and I don’t know what day it is.”
One reason the loss feels so heavy, is Arvid’s unresolved relationship to his father. And much of Arvid’s pondering revolves around the character of his father. He is probably made into an ideal, and seems larger than life in Arvid’s recollections of him. Over time Arvid develops relationships with two neighbors. One of them is a Kurdish man who knows only very little Norwegian. The other is an attractive woman, Mrs. Grinde, who lives across the road.
After an unsuccessful suicide attempt by his brother, Arvid begins to work his way out of his mourning state. He tries to reunite with his family. Small steps, but important ones.
The topic in the novel is a bit gloomy. And, indeed, so is the book. After all, it deals with grief. It may, as I stated initially, have been a tough book to write. One can only speculate on its therapeuticvalue for the author. However, greief, like some other emotional responses, is a state of mind experienced by many of us. And In the Wake is also a book about the rays of hope, and a book that has more. At times it is humorous as well. As well, it is seemingly authentic - Arvid is a character who fought with his family while they were alive and now misses them terribly.
In the Wake is a sensitive book, skillfully translated by Born, which deals with problems of the soul in a fine and measured way. It is a deep character study that provides an insightful look at grief and that is very well worth reading, by one of Norway’s finest writers.
Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
Out Stealing Horses is a very special book, by a talented, prize-winning Norwegian author. It was listed as one of the top 5 fiction books of 2007 by New York Review of Books, and it won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
After reading just a few pages I fell in love with this book. It all started, I think, with me smiling while reading. I even laughed. I read passages out load for my friend. And I enjoyed the book, a lot. The book was not exactly as I had imagined.
Viewed from the outside the book is relatively straight forward. 67 year old Trond moves to a house by a lake in the forest, in the Eastern part of Norway to retire. Here he lives alone with his dog, and spends his time with repairing the house and other small practical tasks. "All my life I have wanted to be alone in a place like this. Even when life was at its finest, as it has often been" (My translation from Norwegian).
But things change for Trond. Meetings with the neighbor living in the cabin a little further down the road evoke difficult memories for Trond. Memories about his father, about the summer of 1948 when he was 15 years old, and about events taking place that summer which were hard to understand for a fifteen year old boy. We flash back and relive those events with Trond, and then we follow the consequences they have for the mature Trond 52 years later.
The story in Out Stealing Horses is good, and it is told with great skill and considerable caution.
But it wasn't only the story that made me love Out Stealing Horses. It was actually mostly the language - that beautiful, slightly remote, and very moderate and crisp language that Per Petterson has chosen for his story. A form perfect for making those things - small and large - that happen in the book stand out on their own accord in my interpretation only. A style of language that delivers joyful, happy, sad, tragical as well as beautiful events and scenes to me in such a raw, unprocessed form that is makes me need and want to reflect and ponder their implications and interrelations, and more or less forces me to relate to what I read.
In addition, I loved all those cute, interesting, staggering and mind-blowing observations, thoughts and reflections about life, being, and nothingness made by Trond. About the trivia of daily life, life in general, the goings on in the world at large, where Trond's particular point in life, situation, and context for interpretation on the one hand lends the story credibility and on the other hand provides a unique perspective that makes a lot of things take on meaning that differ a lot from more common meanings and interpretations.
Lots of joy, lots of food for thought. Out Stealing Horses is highly recommended!
To Siberia is a beautifully written book about the life of a sixty year old Danish woman and her family. Per Petterson lets this woman – we don’t even learn who she is, only that she is referred to as “Sistermine”, my sister – to tell us about her life. She tells, or thinks, about childhood in a Danish port town on the Jutland peninsula, about her grandfather, a farmer who hangs himself in a cowshed, and of the rest of her family - her mother who is a devout Christian, and her father. But most of the book focuses on memories of her older brother Jesper, to whom she had a close and special relationship - their joint memories as well as her longing for him.
Sistermine and Jesper do not get much love or affection from their mother and often silent father. They grow up together, sharing late night adventures and experiences. They grow to learn that "the world was far bigger than the town I lived in," and they look forward to "my own great journey." Jesper yearns to move to the warm climate of Morocco while Sistermine has her sights set on Siberia.
However, the German occupation shatters the future they have drawn up for themselves. Jesper, who is politically interested and has a leftist orientation, gets involved in the German resistance movement in Denmark. Eventually he, as many other Danes and Norwegians during World War II, runs to Sweden. Sistermine watches him depart on a boat.
After the war is over, she moves around in Scandinavia, seemingly looking for meaning in her life, and constantly longing for her older brother, who has gone to Morocco after the war. Sistermine will never see him again, and never gets to see Siberia either.
Like Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia is a sparely, beautifully written and at times poetic book. The story is interesting and touching. However, in my opinion, To Siberia is not quite as good as Out Stealing Horses (which was remarkable), but even so very good.