The past is always commingled with the present. Normally this layering feels, even in the uncanny moments, like a pleasing echo -- the harmony of what was with what it is. As a parent is dying, however, time's score can become an unraveling dissonance. It certainly is so for Arvid Jansen, the thirty-seven-year-old hero of Per Petterson's new novel. Dealing with his mother's imminent demise requires him to act like an adult; facing her loss makes him, irrevocably, into a child.
I Curse the River of Time traces the tension between these two movements with a lugubrious, Norwegian resonance. As in Petterson's IMPAC-winning novel, Out Stealing Horses, the story swallows itself as it goes. Jansen's mother is diagnosed with cancer in 1989; he narrates the story from some distant point in the future; and the book circles back toward Jansen's childhood, as if to discover, in his recollections, a clue to why he never has entirely grown up.
Jansen's mother, no doubt, is part of the problem. She looms large in this tale, like one of the bruising fathers of Russell Banks' novels. Stern, staunchly intelligent, unbowed by hard factory labor, she views her sons -- of whom there are three, once four -- as spoilt children, to whom everything was handed. After her diagnosis is revealed she lights up a cigarette. Then she books passage on a night-ferry to Denmark and the summer home of Arvid's childhood. It is November and bitterly cold.
Petterson is a beautiful writer, but it would have been a stretch to call him amusing until now. Jansen's mishaps make it a funny book, though. He drinks himself into paranoia on the ferry and gets into a fight. He shows up at his mother's cottage, broke, with a bottle of too-expensive French whisky. "I heard your thoughts clatter all the way down from the road," his mother calls out. Jansen peels off to sulk in a rowboat and plunges accidentally into the sea. He falls out of a tree. He nearly cuts his leg off trying to chop wood.
Quite a bit of this behavior, incidentally, will ring bells for readers who have buried a parent. The drinking, the lurching gestures of goodwill, the swells of narcissism and the guilt which follows, the fear of the loss (and how the mundane creep of illness mocks that fear to a froth), the quicksand of the past, the out-of-body weirdness, the sudden appearance of long-lost family friends. The rage and the sorrow and the regret -- but mostly, the regret.
Petterson keenly understands, too, that approaching a grief like this doesn't make us better; it only makes us more ourselves. As we fall back into Jansen's memories, he emerges as an awkward, needy boy who cried at movies and flung himself dumbly at Communism in his young adulthood to impress his mother. He even gets a factory job to become a better communist. I Curse the River of Time, the book's title, comes from a poem by Mao, whose portrait Jansen hung above his bed alongside those of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Similarly, flinging himself into this journey is what, as a son, Jansen feels he ought to do when a mother is sick. The longer Jansen stays, though, the more he realizes he has once again inserted himself back into her life. He works hard to have meaningful moments, and at last they come by accident. One night -- after Jansen has already slept off the worst of his previous hangovers -- he and his mother drink whiskey on the house deck. She won't admit to being afraid of dying. "But damnit, I don't want to die now," she says.
There have been other novels like this one -- Andrew Miller's Oxygen and, further back, William Wharton's Dad. Both revolve around a parent's demise and its gravitational, warping pull. But neither of them portrays time in quite so ambitious a way. Petterson has spoken of his debt to Faulkner, and it is manifest in the best possible manner here: the looping, backward swirl of his sentences, the feeling that the past is never past.
Even still, few writers have captured the way a parent's death feels personal. An extension of prior betrayals, it can seem like the final one. These are not a son's finest moments. Flailing, drunk, self-absorbed, it's hard to warm up to Jansen. He wants desperately to be acknowledged. It's impossible not to feel for him, though. And to want to say, stay still: the worst is yet to come.
John Freeman is the author of The Tyranny of E-mail, and the editor of Granta.
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I Curse the River of Time
By Per Petterson
Copyright © 2008 Forlaget Oktober A.S., Oslo
All right reserved.
Chapter One All this happened quite a few years ago. My mother had been unwell for some time. To put a stop to my brothers' nagging and my father's especially, she finally went to see the doctor she always saw, the doctor my family had used since the dawn of time. He must have been ancient at that point for I cannot recall ever not visiting him, nor can I recall him ever being young. I used him myself even though I now lived a good distance away.
After a brief check-up, this old family doctor swiftly referred her to Aker Hospital for further examination. Having been for several, no doubt painful, tests in rooms painted white, painted apple green, at the big hospital near the Sinsen junction on the side of Oslo I always like to think of as our side, the east side that is, she was told to go home and wait two weeks for the results. When they finally arrived, three weeks later rather than two, it turned out that she had stomach cancer. Her first reaction was as follows: Good Lord, here I've been lying awake night after night, year after year, especially when the children were small, terrified of dying from lung cancer, and then I get cancer of the stomach. What a waste of time!
My mother was like that. And she was a smoker, just as I have been my entire adult life. I know well those night-time moments when you lie in bed staring into the dark, with dry, aching eyes feeling life like ashes in your mouth, even though I have probably worried more about my own life than leaving my children fatherless.
For a while she just sat at the kitchen table with the envelope in her hand, staring out of the window at the same lawn, the same white painted fence, the same clothes lines and the same row of identical grey houses she had been looking at for so many years, and she realised she did not like it here at all. She did not like all the rock in this country, did not like the spruce forests or the high plains, did not like the mountains. She could not see the mountains, but she knew they were everywhere out there leaving their mark, every single day, on the people who lived in Norway.
She stood up, went out into the hallway, made a call, replaced the receiver after a brief conversation and returned to the kitchen table to wait for my father. My father was retired and had been for some years, but she was fourteen years younger than him and still working; though today was her day off.
My father was out, he always had something he needed to see to, errands to run my mother was rarely told about, the results of which she never saw, but whatever conflicts there had been between them were settled long ago. There was a truce now. As long as he did not try to run her life, he was left in peace to run his own. She had even started to defend and protect him. If I uttered a word of criticism or took her side in a misguided attempt to support the women's liberation, I was told to mind my own business. It is easy for you to criticise, she would say, who have had it all handed to you on a silver plate. You squirt.
As if my own life were plain sailing. I was heading full speed for a divorce. It was my first; I thought it was the end of the world. There were days I could not move from the kitchen to the bathroom without falling to my knees at least once before I could pull myself together and walk on.
When finally my father returned from whatever project he thought was the most urgent, something at V?lerenga no doubt, which was the place he was born, where I too had been born seven years after the end of the war, a place he often returned to, to meet up with men his own age and background, to see the old boys, as they called themselves, my mother was still sitting at the kitchen table. She was smoking a cigarette, a Salem, I guess, or perhaps a Cooly. If you were scared of lung cancer you ended up smoking menthols.
My father stood in the doorway with a well-worn bag in his hand, not unlike the one I used in years six and seven at school, we all carried a bag like that then, and for all I know it was the same one. In that case the bag was more than twenty-five years old.
'I'm leaving today,' my mother said.
'Where to?' my father said.
'Home,' he said. 'Today? Shouldn't we talk about it first? Don't I get a chance to think about it?'
'There's nothing to discuss,' my mother said. 'I've booked my ticket. I've just had a letter from Aker Hospital. I've got cancer.'
'You have cancer?'
'Yes. I've got stomach cancer. So now I have to go home for a bit.'
She still referred to Denmark as home when she spoke about the town she came from, in the far north of that small country, even though she had lived in Norway, in Oslo, for forty years exactly.
'But, do you want to go alone?' he said.
'Yes,' my mother said. 'That's what I want.'
And when she said it like this she knew my father would be hurt and upset, and that gave her no pleasure at all, on the contrary, he deserves better, she thought, after so much life, but she did not feel she had a choice. She had to go on her own.
'I probably won't stay very long,' she said. 'Just a few days, and then I'll be back. I have to go into hospital. I may need an operation. At least I hope so. In any case I'm catching the evening ferry.'
She looked at her watch.
'And that's in three hours. I'd best go upstairs and pack my things.'
They lived in a terraced house with a kitchen and a living room on the ground floor and three small bedrooms and a tiny bathroom on the first. I grew up in that house. I knew every crinkle in the wallpaper, every crack in the floorboards, every terrifying corner in the cellar. It was cheap housing. If you kicked the wall hard enough, your foot would crash into your neighbour's living room.
She stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and stood up. My father had not moved, he was still standing in the doorway with the bag in one hand, the other insecurely raised in her direction. He had never been a champ when it came to physical contact, not outside the boxing ring, and frankly, it was not her strong point either, but now she pushed my father aside, carefully, almost lovingly so that she could get past. And he let her do it, but with so much reluctance, both firm and slow, it was enough for her to understand he wanted to give her something tangible, a sign, without putting it into words. But it's too late for that, she told herself, far too late, she said, but he could not hear her. Yet she allowed my father to hold her up long enough for him to understand there was enough between them after forty years together and four sons, even though one of them had already died, for them to live in the same house still, in the same flat, and wait for each other and not just run off when something important had happened.
The ferry she was travelling on, which we all travelled on when we headed south, was called the Holger Danske. Later she was docked and turned into a shelter for refugees, in Stockholm first, I've found out, and then in Malmö, and was now stripped down to scrap metal on some beach in Asia, in India or Bangladesh, but in the days I am talking about here, she still sailed between Oslo and this town in the far north of Jutland, the very town my mother grew up in.
She liked that boat and thought its poor reputation was unfair; Not a Chanske, as she was popularly known, but it was a much better ship, she thought, than the floating casinos which sail the route today, where the opportunities for drinking yourself senseless have become senselessly many and even though the Holger Danske might have rolled a bit from side to side when the weather was bad, that did not mean she was about to go down the great drain. I have thrown up on board the Holger Danske myself and never gave it a thought.
My mother was fond of the crew. With time she had made friends with many of them, for it was a small ship, and they knew who she was and greeted her as one of their own when she came up the gangway.
Perhaps on this occasion they noticed a new gravity in her manner, in her walk, in the way she looked around her, as she often would with a smile on her lips that was not a smile as there was nothing to smile about that anyone could see, but it was how she looked when her mind was somewhere else and definitely not in a place that those around her could have guessed. I thought she looked especially pretty then. Her skin was smooth and her eyes took on a strange, clear shine. As a small boy I often sat watching her when she was not aware I was in the room or perhaps had forgotten I was there, and that could make me feel lonely and abandoned. But it was exciting, too, for she looked like a woman in a film on TV, like Greta Garbo in Queen Christina lost in thought at the ship's bow close to the end of the film on her way to some other more spiritual place, and yet somehow she had managed to enter our kitchen and stop there for a while to sit on one of the red kitchen chairs with a smoking cigarette between her fingers and a so far untouched and unsolved crossword open in front of her on the table. Or she might look like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca as she had the same hairstyle and the same curve along her cheek, but my mother would never have said: You have to think for both of us to Humphrey Bogart. Not to anyone.
If the crew of the Holger Danske had picked up on this or any other change in her way of greeting them when she crossed the gangway with her small brown suitcase of imitation leather, which is mine now and I still use wherever I go, there was no remark to that effect and I think she was grateful for that.
When she had found her cabin, she placed the suitcase on a chair, took a glass from the shelf above the sink, cleaned it carefully before she opened the suitcase and pulled out a half-bottle from underneath her clothes. It was Upper Ten, her favourite brand of whisky when she drank the hard liquor, which she did, I think, more often than we were aware of. Not that it was any of our business, but my brothers considered Upper Ten to be cheap shit, at least when you had access to duty free goods. They preferred malt whisky, Glenfiddich, or Chivas Regal which was sold on the ferry to Denmark, and they would hold forth at length about the distinctive caress of the single malt on your palate and other such nonsense, and we mocked my mother for her poor taste. Then she would give us an icy stare and say:
'And you are my sons? Snobs?'
And she would say: 'If you want to sin, it better sting.' And the truth is that I agreed with her, and to be honest I, too, bought the Norwegian label Upper Ten the few times I mustered the courage to go to the wine monopoly, and Upper Ten was neither single malt nor mild on your palate; on the contrary, it made your throat burn and the tears well up in your eyes unless you were prepared for the first mouthful. This is not to say that it was bad whisky, only that it was cheap.
My mother twisted the top off the bottle with a sudden movement and she filled the glass roughly three-quarters full, drained it in two gulps, and it burned her mouth and her throat so badly she had to cough, and then she cried a little too as she was already in pain. Then she put the bottle back under the clothes in her suitcase as if it were contraband she was carrying and the customs officers were at the door with their crowbars and handcuffs, and she washed her tears away in front of the mirror above the tap and dried her face and tugged at her clothes the way plump women nearly always do, before she went upstairs to the cafeteria which was a modest cafeteria in every sense of the word, and the menu was modest and manageable the way she liked it, and that made the Holger Danske the perfect boat.
She brought with her the book she was reading, and she was always reading, always had a book tucked into her bag, and if Günter Grass had published a novel recently, it was very likely the one she was carrying, in German. When I stopped reading books in German shortly after I left school for the simple reason I no longer had to, she dressed me down and told me I was intellectually lazy, and I defended myself and said I was not; it was a matter of principle, I said, because I hated the Nazis. That enraged her. She pointed a trembling index finger at my nose and said, what do you know about Germany and German history and what happened there? You squirt. She would often call me that. You squirt, she said, and it is true that I was not tall of stature, but then neither was she. But I was fit, I always have been, and the nickname 'squirt' implied both meanings: that I was fairly short of stature, like she was, and at the same time fit, like my father was, and that perhaps she liked me that way. At least I hoped she did. So when she dressed me down and called me a squirt, I was never in serious trouble. And I did not know that much about Germany at the time of this conversation. She had a point.
I cannot imagine she craved company in the cafeteria on board the Holger Danske and approached a table to engage someone in conversation, to find out what their thoughts were and what their dreams, for they were of her kind and had the same background, or the opposite, because they were different too, and it is in the way we differ that you find what is interesting, what is possible, she believed, and she searched for those differences and got a great deal out of them. On this occasion she sat down, alone, at a table for two and ate in silence and concentrated on her book over coffee after her meal, and when her cup was empty she tucked the book under her arm and stood up. The very moment her body left the chair, she felt so exhausted she thought she would collapse there and then and never stand up again. She clung to the edge of the table, the world drifted like the ferry did, and she had no idea how she would manage to get through the cafeteria, past the reception and down the stairs. And yet she did. She took a deep breath and walked with quiet determination between the tables, down the stairs to the cabins, and she had the expression on her face which I have already described, and only a few times did she lean against the wall for support before she found her cabin door, pulled the key from her coat pocket, and locked the door behind her. The minute she sat down on her bed, she poured a large measure of Upper Ten into her glass and downed it in three quick gulps, and she cried when it hurt.
Chapter Two After my mother had crossed the gangway of the Holger Danske and stepped on to the quay in the North Jutland town which was the town she grew up in and still referred to as home after forty years of fixed abode in Oslo, she walked along the harbourfront with the small brown suitcase in her hand and onwards past the shipyard which, in fact, had not been shut down, back then in the Eighties, when almost all other shipyards in Denmark collapsed like houses of cards. She walked past the old whitewashed gunpowder tower of Admiral Tordenskjold, which the town council had moved to the spot where it now stood from where it stood before, one hundred and fifty metres closer to the water. They had dug under the tower and laid down well worn railway sleepers, a giant winch was installed, and more than one thousand litres of soft soap were used to make the whole thing glide. And they did it. They dragged tons and tons of stone tower, centimetre by centimetre to its new location, which had been prepared in every possible way, so they could build a new dry dock for the shipyard without sacrificing one of the town's very few attractions. But it was a long time now since that operation had been carried out and she was really not quite sure if the story about the soft soap and the railway sleepers was entirely true; it did sound a bit odd, and she was not there when it happened. She was in Norway at the time, kidnapped by fate, like a hostage almost, but they did succeed. The tower had definitely been moved.
Excerpted from I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson Copyright © 2008 by Forlaget Oktober A.S., Oslo. Excerpted by permission.
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