The remarkable novel Out Stealing Horses by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson opens with an image of titmice banging into the window of the narrator’s remote cabin home and falling dizzily into the evening snow. Warm inside, the aging Trond Sander remarks, “I don’t know what they want that I have.” This proximity to a wayward nature that expects something of us, we know not what, and where collisions and deaths are ever in the wind is a constant in Petterson’s fiction. There is a great deal of weather in his stories and it is always beautiful and menacing.
Fear is the most common emotion; life is dangerous and accidents happen. Practical competence with tools, animals, guns, and vehicles is much admired. Meticulous descriptions explain how to use a chainsaw so you won’t get hurt, how to prepare a home against the winter, how to stack logs on a sloping river bank, how to save a drowning man.
In relationships what matters is trust. If you can’t feel safe with someone, far better to be alone. Sex may be exciting, but it aligns itself with the elements as potentially catastrophic. Both Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia are essentially about betrayals of trust. In both novels a young person on the brink of adulthood loses, in melodramatic circumstances, the one relationship that made it possible to face an inclement world with confidence. Narrated in hindsight by elderly survivors, the novels hint at a crippled adult life only half-lived in constant apprehension and prolonged mourning. A quiet stoicism holds panic and despair at bay.
In Out Stealing Horses, the discovery that a near neighbor, Lars Haug, is a childhood acquaintance compels Trond Sander to recall the last summer he spent with his father fifty years before. The two had gone away to a remote cabin by a river on the Swedish border (such places are frequent in Petterson’s work) where the father enlists the boy’s help to cut down an area of forest he has bought in order to sell the timber downstream. Other helpers are Lars’s mother and father.
The fifteen-year-old Trond finds himself deeply attracted to Lars’s mother, then sees his father watching her too. Their mutual awareness of this shared attraction deepens an already close father–son relationship. It is the boy’s first sexual arousal. Then he discovers that his father and the friend’s mother are already lovers; during the war the two worked together in the anti-Nazi Resistance. When the logs have been cut and sent downriver, the father disappears and the boy realizes that the money from the log sale was intended to pay off the family—himself, his mother, and his sister—whom his father is abandoning forever. The whole summer that had seemed so idyllic was actually a carefully planned betrayal. Unfortunately, the money will amount to very little because in his eagerness to be free the father sent the logs downriver when the water was low and most have been lost in snags. Trond’s mother will never recover.
In the original Norwegian, To Siberia was published seven years before Out Stealing Horses, but the core of the book is remarkably similar. This time the narrator, unnamed, is an elderly Danish woman recalling her childhood in northern Jutland, just across the water from Sweden. The climate is extreme: “I remember it all as winter,” she tells us. Again adolescence coincides with the war period, as if growing up and conflict called to each other. This time the figure of apparent trust is the narrator’s brother, Jesper, two years older than herself.
The story’s opening sentence sets the phobic tone. “When I was a little girl of six or seven I was always scared when we passed the lions on our way out of town.” They are only stone lions on gateposts but when, riding past in their grandfather’s pony-trap, Jesper shouts “They’re coming! They’re coming!,” the girl panics, leaps from the trap, and flees into the fields. Her body pays the price; her knees are grazed and “there was dew on the grass and my ankles were wet, I felt stubble and stalks and rough ground under my bare feet.” But when her grandfather scolds Jesper, the frightened girl comes to his defense. “My grandfather was a man full of wrath and in the end I always had to stand up for my brother, for there was no way I could live without him.”
Escalating and intensifying, similar episodes repeat themselves throughout the book. The children’s parents are unhappy and distracted. The mother is religious and prudish, absorbed in her hymns, prayers, and fear of moral scandal. A skilled carpenter, the father is an incompetent businessman who can’t get his customers to pay, and so fills his children’s lives with small chores to make ends meet.
Inadequately protected and only intermittently loved, girl and boy venture into the world together. Or rather, the daredevil, Communist Jesper knocks on his sister’s window in the night and drags her off on his explorations, of the frozen coast, of the town’s drink-fueled nightlife. Invited to witness her brother’s daring as he walks out to sea on the ice or throws himself into a brawl in a bar, the girl is determined to overcome fear and get involved. Since she is always inadequately clothed, we are constantly made aware of the cold on her body, icy air on thighs and stomach, salt wind gluing her hair to her face, seawater chafing her thighs. “Don’t be scared, just do what I do,” Jesper tells her. But the boy is careless. He slips from a seawall and his panicking sister has to save him from drowning.
The girl finds two forms of relief from excitement and vulnerability: precious moments when she feels warmed and at one with nature, as when she stretches out to sleep beside a cow in a stall (again there is a similar scene in Out Stealing Horses). Such experiences offer the promise of an ultimate extinction of the anxious ego in an all-embracing Other. But they are rare. An easier refuge is reading: the girl borrows novels from a rich friend, taking pleasure in fictional vicissitudes in the safety of her room. Through books the children discover the lands they dream of visiting. Jesper yearns to go to exotic Morocco: caravans, Moors, outlandish clothes; the girl is drawn to Siberia, not so much for the arduous landscape and climate but for the warm houses and thick clothes the Siberians have to protect themselves. Then the rich friend dies and her family library is no longer available.
Given his narrators’ constant efforts to foresee and forestall, it’s not surprising that Petterson is an extremely careful writer and his books are meticulously constructed, full of parallelisms that sometimes border on contrivance. So the second of To Siberia‘s three sections begins, like the first, with someone shouting, “They’re coming! They’re coming!” This time it is not the stone lions but the Germans. From now on Jesper’s adventures will be in the Resistance and his sister will be called on to take greater and greater risks to help and protect him. She is now fifteen and the attention to her frequently cold, tired, wounded body becomes sexually charged.
This section reaches its climax when a Gestapo man comes to arrest Jesper and the girl keeps him talking to cover for her brother who has just left. Sneeringly, the Nazi accuses her of sleeping with Jesper—they are known to be very close—and with a courage born from offense she slaps him and gets herself seriously beaten. Arriving that evening at her brother’s beach hideout to warn him of the danger, she is soaked through and has to strip naked. Jesper says:
“You’re a good looker now, Sistermine.”
“Gestapo Jørgensen says we sleep together.”
I swallow, there is something in my throat I can’t get down…. Jesper just smiles.
“But we don’t, do we.”
“No,” I say, and it is then he sees the wound on my face…. He gets up.
“Did Jørgensen do that?”
I do not reply. He takes the few steps toward me slightly bent under the roof, I swallow and drop the jumper.
“Hell, the swine,” says Jesper and raises his hand to touch the wound with his fingertips carefully. I lean my cheek against his palm, lightly at first and then harder and we stand there and he leans his forehead against my temple, his shirt just brushes my bare breasts. I meet him, I do not breathe, and he says:
“You’re a sweet brave sister.”
“Yes,” I say.
He bends down carefully with my cheek in his hand and picks up the sweater.
“You’re freezing,” he says.
“Sistermine” is the only name given to the narrator throughout: if incest is avoided, nevertheless her brother possesses her. But he will not protect her; immediately after this scene Jesper flees to Sweden, leaving his sister to warm her young body with one of the fishermen who helped him escape. “It gave me no pleasure,” she tells us.
Petterson doesn’t so much develop fully drawn characters as establish a pattern of complementary ways of behaving, in which everybody is seen in relation to the narrator’s anxieties and aspirations. In this regard, the most interesting part of the novel is the third and last, where the girl tries to come to terms with adult life without her brother as reference point.
The war is over. In character, Jesper has gone where he dreamed of going: Morocco. He doesn’t write, isn’t in a hurry to get back to his sister. The girl hasn’t made it to Siberia but is working aimlessly in a great-aunt’s diner in Oslo, drifting from one unsatisfactory sexual encounter to another. Once again she loses a source of free books after a lesbian librarian attempts to seduce her and she feels too threatened to return.
Romantic love at last seems possible when a mild-mannered amateur boxer (a protector?) courts her assiduously. Finally she agrees to follow him to the inevitable remote cabin. Snow falls heavily. Our girl is freezing again, but her man is competent at lighting stoves. A good sign. In the growing heat, she avoids seduction by removing her clothes before he can kiss her. When the two make love, the reader may hope for a happy ending, but in the early morning she rises quietly and leaves her sleeping man, repeating the abandonment that has been perpetrated against her. She cannot trust anyone after losing her brother, and Jesper now compounds his betrayal by carelessly contracting an illness in Morocco and dying. The girl is left in a desolate Siberia of the mind, searching for a warm place to bear the child she is carrying.
Much of Petterson’s worldwide success with Out Stealing Horses depends on two qualities: a deceptively simple, wonderfully incantatory style in which small units of well-observed detail and action, connected only by a string of “and”s, accumulate in long rhythmic sentences that frequently give us the impression that the next detail will be very bad news. We are kept spellbound and anxious.1 Petterson is also careful to avoid making demands on readers with references to cultural setting; the only things you need to know about Norway and Denmark to enjoy these books is that they are in northern climes and were invaded by the Germans in World War II. Nor will you know more than that on finishing the novels. To turn from Petterson to the late Hugo Claus, then, is to see how equally fine and perhaps more ambitious writing can have very little commercial success internationally when it takes the opposite tack: Wonder is a work of savage satire intensely engaged with the moral and cultural life of the author’s Belgium and making no concessions to those who are unwilling to interest themselves in the small country’s contentious politics.
Petterson's new book I Curse the River of Time, to be published in August, is no exception. The more colorful, dramatic perils of Out Stealing Horses and Siberia are replaced now by the threats of cancer and divorce, but the tone of impending doom remains the same. Life is a game played entirely in defense.↩
Petterson’s new book I Curse the River of Time, to be published in August, is no exception. The more colorful, dramatic perils of Out Stealing Horses and Siberia are replaced now by the threats of cancer and divorce, but the tone of impending doom remains the same. Life is a game played entirely in defense.↩