By Bob Thompson
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; C02
I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME
By Per Petterson
Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund
Graywolf. 233 pp. $23
Two-thirds of the way through Per Petterson's new novel, its narrator, 37-year-old Arvid Jansen, finds himself up a tree. Perched on a branch of an old pine overhanging his family's summer house, Arvid mulls a scheme for bridging the emotional gap that divides him from his mother.
It's not going to work, this scheme, but never mind. Petterson, a best-selling Norwegian writer whose "Out Stealing Horses" made him an international name in 2007, is a master at putting parents and children up the kind of psychic trees from which -- minds fogged by anger and longing -- they can't climb down. The stubborn mysteries of family conflict are his subject, and he evokes them in a voice whose straightforwardness belies its subtlety.
Six pages into "I Curse the River of Time," Arvid describes a scene he did not witness: his mother boarding a ferry from Norway to Denmark, alone, hours after learning she has stomach cancer. She's heading straight for that summer house in the Danish town she still considers home, despite decades of exile in Oslo.
"Perhaps [the crew] 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," her son observes. "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. . . . Or she might look like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca [except that] my mother would never have said: You have to think for both of us to Humphrey Bogart. Not to anyone."
Not to Arvid's father, the unwanted husband with whom she has a longstanding truce, and certainly not to Arvid. "He's thirty-seven years old," she tells a friend, "but I wouldn't call him a grown-up. That would be an exaggeration. He's getting a divorce. I don't know what to do with him."
Hearing that his mother has fled, Arvid impulsively follows. His attempts to force her attention in his direction are at once comic, pathetic and heartbreaking. "Oh, Arvid," she says after one especially self-absorbed assault, "drop it."
The mother-son struggle continues as flashbacks illuminate their history. Here they are in the 1970s, meeting for coffee after her shift at the Freia chocolate factory. He tells her he's leaving college to take up factory work because the Communist Party has urged its members to become industrial workers. Blind to the likely response of the family intellectual, an obsessive reader denied her own chance at higher education, he is stunned when she slaps his face.
Here she is ringing his doorbell, seeking a reconciliation that may have been put off too long. Here he is at her 50th birthday party, too drunk to deliver a speech in her honor. Here they are in a chillingly intimate hospital scene, watching Arvid's brother die, still unable to cross what Arvid calls the "Rio Grande" that separates them.
"I Curse the River of Time" is about much more than a mother and son. Arvid recalls the origins of his marriage and "how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust." With divorce inevitable, he takes reality-evading drives with his daughters, drumming on the steering wheel as they harmonize on Beatles songs. He feels time "run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks," always leaving him "a different person than I had been before, and it sometimes made me despair." Time erodes not just his marriage but his naive idealism: The portrait of Chairman Mao comes off his wall, though the book takes its title from a line of Mao's poetry.
To his mother, time seems even less forgiving. "I thought I had no choice. But I did," she says of the decision that drove her from home 40 years before, "and now I am ill."
Petterson's pacing depends more on character than plot, and when it occasionally slows, the cause is not hard to determine. Arvid Jansen -- who is not Per Petterson, yet who comes close enough that his creator has described him as a soul mate -- is simply less compelling when his tough, complicated parent is offstage.
She, too, has a great deal of the autobiographical about her, and she so fascinates Petterson that he wrote an earlier novel from her point of view. The first-person voice in "To Siberia" sounds remarkably different from Arvid's. But to readers still wondering why his mother drove him up that tree, it may come as a revelation.
Thompson is a Washington writer and former Post reporter and editor.