Caught up in the swift currents of time
“All this happened quite a few years ago.” With that unassuming, almost childlike opening sentence, Per Petterson introduces an evocative still-life portrait of the tender, difficult relationship between a mother and her adult son.
Set mainly in 1989 with flashbacks to the early 1970s, I Curse the River of Time—Petterson’s third novel to be published in English—traces a cancer-stricken woman’s journey from Norway to her childhood home in a windswept, seaside town in Denmark’s Jutland region. She’s followed there by her son Arvid Jensen, haunted by his impending divorce and the specter of his mother’s death. Arvid, a former Maoist who dropped out of college (over his mother’s fierce objection) to work in a printing plant as an idealistic demonstration of his solidarity with the working class, sees his youthful illusions dashed as the Communist empire collapses in Eastern Europe.
The novel’s title, drawn from a poem by Mao Zedong, introduces the theme of time’s inevitable passage that permeates the story. “The world unfolded in all its majesty,” Arvid thinks, “back in time, forward in time, history was one long river and we were all borne along by that river.” In a few fine brushstrokes, Petterson economically captures Arvid’s regret over the way lost time has robbed him of his chances to build an enduring emotional bond with his mother.
Petterson’s unaffected prose calls to mind Hemingway’s, and is especially well suited to both the novel’s autumnal Scandinavian setting and the tense interplay between Arvid and his mother. Even the story’s mostly quotidian moments—a parent’s 50th birthday party or a conversation between mother and son over Napoleon cakes and coffee—are roiled by powerful undercurrents of feeling. Petterson seems untroubled by any need to elaborate on the novel’s sometimes enigmatic events, like the moving scenes of Arvid’s younger brother on life support in an Oslo hospital or the relationship between Arvid’s mother and a Danish man named Hansen, but these omissions only serve to enhance its brooding tone.
With a body of work that’s attracting growing attention in this country, Per Petterson delivers novels that plumb the depths of character with tender insight. His latest, eloquent both in speech and in silence, is best read in the quiet hours of the night, when we’re most receptive to its meditative spell.