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Per Petterson’s ‘I Refuse’ and ‘Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes’

“I Refuse,” by Per Petterson. (Courtesy of Graywolf Press)

Near the end of Per Petterson's new novel, "I Refuse," the protagonist, Tommy Berggren, goes into a bookstore in Oslo to pass the time before a date. Tommy is a successful middle-aged financier who drives a new Mercedes and dresses "like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State." He finds nothing of interest in the shop, but when he comes across "stacks of fat crime books next to each other, most of them Norwegian," Tommy is reminded of his youthful passion for the works of Raymond Chandler:

“Philip Marlowe . . . touched me in a way I hadn’t expected of a crime novel. There was something about him. A dignity, perhaps, an incorruptibility I didn’t feel I had myself, although I might have had it once. . . . It was many years ago. I had barely read a book since, that wasn’t non-fiction. I had put it behind me. I didn’t have time to be moved. What I decided was to let things take their course and think no more about it.”

The scene is both a dig at the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction and an encapsulation of the theme that lies at the heart of Petterson’s work. Many of the author’s protagonists aspire to Marlowe’s stoic, manly virtue, but end up as unwilling detectives of their own wounded psyches, helplessly dragged into investigations of their troubled pasts. Tommy’s vow to “think no more about it” is, of course, doomed to failure.

As in Petterson's prize-winning novel, "Out Stealing Horses," the central trauma of "I Refuse" stems from an unhappy father-son relationship. Tommy's mother abandoned her husband and children, leaving the boy and his three younger siblings to be raised solely by their drunken, abusive father. Petterson's descriptions of the beatings inflicted on the children are harrowing, but they provide a credible motivation for 13-year-old Tommy's desperate act of defiance. In the aftermath, the father flees and Tommy and his siblings enjoy a brief utopia, living together without parental supervision, before the authorities send them to different foster families. The experience teaches Tommy to take control of his life — no matter the cost. It also shows him how fleeting happiness can be.

Tommy’s foil in the novel is his childhood friend and neighbor, Jim. Raised by a single mother who is a devout Christian, Jim is much more sensitive and fragile than Tommy. He grows up to become a librarian but suffers from a debilitating nervous condition that prevents him from working. He had been “robbed of his masculine model, the football-playing man, the cross-country skiing man, a man who stood his ground,” Petterson writes. “He had never had a father like that, or any father at all. . . . [It] must have weakened him and feminised him.” Intensely close through their teenage years, the boys drift apart as adulthood approaches. A chance meeting between them many years later sets in motion the introspective detective work that makes up the plot of this brooding novel.

“I Refuse” is non-linear in structure, told from half a dozen points of view, veering between past and present. Some chapters are narrated in the first person and others in the third. This fragmentary approach gives the reader a vivid sense of how the past is always with these characters, but it also inhibits the development of narrative suspense. (Don’t pick this book up expecting a Jo Nesbø page-turner.) Petterson includes chapters about two of the women in Tommy’s family, but the male struggle between repression and self-enlightenment is the book’s dominant conflict. For the women, the only viable option seems to be escape.

Don Bartlett’s translation captures the terse beauty of Petterson’s idiosyncratic prose style. Mimicking the release of pent-up emotions, the book’s short declarative sentences suddenly transform into flowing, incantatory paragraphs. Nowhere is this more beautifully done than in a scene in which the teenage Tommy and Jim work together to dig a trench. As in the novels of Hemingway and Melville, manual labor provides a respite from the demands of consciousness.

The refusal to contemplate the past is but one of many shadings of the book’s title. Tommy refuses to be cowed by his father; Jim refuses to obey the conventions of middle-class professional life; and finally, both men refuse to reconcile fully with their demons. The result is a novel that refuses the reader’s desire for neat closure. What we get instead is something more unsettling and life-like.

To accompany "I Refuse," Petterson's American publisher, Graywolf, is releasing a translation of the author's debut, a book of linked stories called "Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes," originally published in Norway in 1987. Many of these 10 tales are no more than impressionistic sketches about a young boy named Arvid Jansen, a recurring Petterson character, who appears as an adult in the author's later work. Dreamy and evanescent, they recall the opening pages of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Though lacking the complexity and suppleness of later novels, "Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes" is concerned with the same themes. Seeing a photograph of his mother taken when she was much younger, Arvid becomes terrified of the relentless passage of time:

“He held his hands to his face as if to keep his skin in place and for many nights he lay clutching his body, feeling time sweeping through it like little explosions. The palms of his hands were quivering and he tried to resist time and hold it back. But nothing helped, and with every pop he felt himself getting older.”

Jon Michaud is a novelist and librarian who lives in Bethesda, Md.


By Per Petterson

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Graywolf. 282 pp. $25


By Per Petterson

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Graywolf. 118 pp. Paperback, $14

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