Dreaming of Emptiness
By Per Petterson
Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born
Graywolf. 245 pp. $22
You can infer a lot about the mental state of the narrator of this bleak novel from the fact that she fantasizes about moving to Siberia. We meet her on Christmas Eve, 1934, when she's 9, living with her family in a poor fishing village in northern Norway. She has just recently realized that "the world was far bigger than the town I lived in," and she's already looking forward to "my own great journey." Setting her sights on a vast frozen desert in the Soviet Union seems like a sad choice, but it's typical of the desolation that infuses every one of these pages.
Per Petterson has been writing in Norway for decades, but Americans didn't have access to his stark, somber work until last year, when a publisher in St. Paul, Minn., released Out Stealing Horses, a quiet novel about an old recluse remembering a fateful summer. It won the International IMPAC Dublin Award and wide critical praise, enough to generate interest in Petterson's earlier books. And so, this year we have To Siberia, which appeared in England 10 years ago.
The story -- such as it is -- evolves in a series of highly impressionistic moments, recalled by a 60-year-old unnamed narrator whose unmitigated sorrow casts a shadow over everything she remembers. Her memories of life when she was a girl present themselves to us like visions in a dream: intense and detailed at the focal point, vague and misty around the edges. The events generally fall into chronological order, in three sections: the narrator's childhood, the German occupation during her teen years, and her travels through Denmark and Norway in her early 20s. But there are numerous disorienting gaps and references we can't understand until later -- if ever -- as the meanings of various associations slowly accrue.
Some beautiful, haunting scenes come early in the novel when she plays with her beloved older brother, Jesper. He's an endearing rascal, full of fun and mischief, who at 12 already dreams of becoming a famous smuggler. "He does things that are original," the narrator says. One evening he calls her out of the house after their parents have gone to bed. "I have never been outside like this, never had a shadow at night," she says. "He goes first and I follow, it is like a dance only the two of us know and we dance along the roof until we come to the end where a birch reaches up with strong branches and there we climb down." They end up in the barn snuggling with cows for warmth, whispering the animals to sleep. The scene's odd poignancy stems from Petterson's ability to strip away almost everything, letting what's left imply a little girl's inarticulate wonder and delight with these simple moments.
But more often the narrator's descriptions suggest dark tensions and even tragic events, not fully comprehended by her child self. She senses, for instance, the irreconcilable break between her grandparents and her father, as his employment prospects slowly trend downward. She feels the lack of affection between him and her pious, hymn-playing mother. " He is the one who chose her," she says incredulously. "I don't understand it, they never touch each other." We hear only a child's version of her grandfather's suicide: "The paper was folded twice without a speck on it and bore a note in his handwriting: I cannot go on any longer. I was sure that was something we understood, both Jesper and I, that he could not go on any longer, but what it was he could not go on with we had no idea, because he was as strong as an ox and could work harder and longer than anyone else I have ever known."
By the time the Germans arrive in 1941, Jesper is enflamed with the slogans of socialism, but Denmark is passive, and so her brother must just smolder with resentment until his petty acts of defiance find an outlet in the active resistance of 1943. Here Petterson's highly selective vision provides a frightening impression of their lives as the Germans take over. Small moments of violence could lead to a momentary thrill, or to execution. But Petterson makes no effort to provide a comprehensive narrative of the war years. He gives us only isolated anecdotes and startling images that suggest the weird mixture of normalcy and terror under occupation.
The novel's final section, which takes place around 1947, is the starkest and thinnest. Here the story grows even more fragmented, the tone even more depressed, the events even more colorless. The narrator moves from city to city, waits tables, works as a glassblower, sleeps around, pines for her brother. "The days go by, and I go with them," she says, "but I do not count them."
I was starting to, though. There's nothing like listening to somebody else's despondency to make the time drag. "Nothing mattered," she goes on. "I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest."
Unfortunately, the further the novel moves away from the sensuous childhood scenes in the first section or the chilling moments of resistance in the second, the more unsatisfying To Siberia becomes. Its blank emotional landscape and fragmented events are meant to convey the narrator's aimless despair, and they certainly do, but as hard as I tried I couldn't resist the conclusion that this book is just plain dull. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.