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Book Review: I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

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To be a citizen of Per Petterson's Norway is to be a stranger to yourself; your nine-year-old self walks shoulder-to-shoulder with your 37-year-old self, who in turn remembers what it was to be 22. As a result, the eternal question of "Who am I?" is doubled, folded, and refracted into "Which I exactly am I?"

Petterson's 2003 breakout novel Out Stealing Horses is relatively straightforward. At age 67 Trond Sander, retired and living in a sparsely populated corner of the country, is trying to come to terms with a childhood trauma that has haunted him for more than five decades. The persistence of that event in Sander's life (and the trouble it causes him) seeps into the water, dirt, trees, and air around him; the muted colors and winter barrenness of the landscape become the stage for his memory play. His daughter Ellen has no such access. She visits him and tries to understand what it that has driven him back into himself.

Petterson's masterly new novel, I Curse the River of Time, might be thought of as a sort of companion piece. Not only does it reside at the same juncture of identity, memory, and time, but it also mirrors Out Stealing Horses's narrative structure. This time, however, a child's confusion with a parent's distance is the center of the story.

Three major parts of Arvid Jansen's life are drawing to a close. His marriage is ending. The Berlin wall is coming down, along with the left-wing idealism of his youth. And his mother is dying.

The failure of this triad has sent him into an existential tailspin, and he is left wondering how his life ended up in such tatters. What Arvid doesn't see, but that Petterson allows us to see, is that Arvid is not, to borrow from the opening sentence of David Copperfield, the hero of his own life.

No, I Curse the River of Time, is the story of how one tragedy in his mother's life echoed across Arvid's. Though perhaps, given the novel's title, derived from a poem by Mao, "echoing" is the wrong metaphor. The river-as-time construction does to a degree capture the particular causality of Arvid's life — because of cataracts upstream, he is subject to turbulence beyond his control or ken. In turn, his own daughters' lives will be shaped by how he deals with his estrangement from his mother.

If we live long enough, it seems we will all eventually find ourselves in Arvid's position, struggling to understand how things we for which we so ardently hoped have collapsed and why people important to us have left. How will we deal with that realization? How will we, if we can, come to terms with our insufficiency and not be crushed by it?

Petterson's great gift to us here is to show us the cost of this kind of despair. Arvid thinks that he has some "flaw, some crack in the foundation of his character" that has caused him to be something other than what he had hoped, but it is only his mourning for an idea of himself that prevents him from living in full: "Now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be is gone forever, and the one you were, is the one that those around you will remember. Then that must feel like someone's strong hands slowly tightening their grip around your neck until you can breathe no more."

Some are foolish enough to claim they have no regrets, but most of us know that is delusion. Petterson challenges us to acknowledge both our frailty and our folly while not flinching at them, to value not what we had hoped for, but what we have saved.

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