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I Curse The River of Time

Oddly, the title of Per Petterson’s book comes from a poem from Chairman Mao:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time, thirty-two years have passed.

We follow the narrator Arvid–a 37 year-old Norwegian man, brother, son and former communist–as he travels his own river of time. This includes the years falling in love with his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and the memories of being a son to his soon-to-be-dying mother.

Rather uplifting I should say, right?

Well, for those of you who have read Per Patterson’s remarkable book Out Stealing Horses (A MUST read), the territory covered in I Curse the River of Time is very familiar. The language is sparse, crisp, stark, lonely–perhaps what we expect a Norwegian winter day to be like. The writing brings to life a desolate landscape.

I am not just talking the physical here. Be warned, this is seriously raw emotion.

But we can survive the cold, because the writing is exceptional.

“On the twelfth floor I got out of the lift and took a few steps to the right. I did not feel ready. I stopped and stood very still. Something was stuck in my throat and I could not get it out. Right in front of me there were large windows with a view to the north. I went right up to one of them and leaned my forehead against the glass and looked down, and I felt such an unexpected blow to my stomach that I thought perhaps I was going to fall right through the window all the way to the ground. A flush of heat washed through my body, and it was as if a wind came through my head with a deafening blast and all sorts of trash I had long forgotten crashed against the walls of my brain. I spread my legs like sailors do and pressed both palms against the windows, and with my forehead still hard against the glass, I held my eyes open and forced myself to remain there….Then I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and sucked the air into my lungs and held it there for as long as I could, and when I finally opened my eyes, the world stood still.”

As you can see, Arvid struggles. His mother has been diagnosed with cancer, but he is the one who wanders. He asks his mother if she is scared of dying and she says: “No, I am not afraid of dying. But dammit, I don’t want to die now.” He compares that with his own thoughts of death, to which he says: “I was scared. Not of being dead…” but because “suddenly you realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.”

Arvid lurks in the shadow of a brother who died too early in life, though we never quite learn how. He fails at attempts to make something of himself. His desire to be a communist worker is not at all appreciated, given his family’s sacrifice for his fantastic education. He is haunted by the dissolution of his own marriage, which he summarizes as: “how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust.

Yep, this novel certainly lacks in an upbeat message, but you can’t help but admire how wonderfully it is written. You ebb and flow and bob downstream with Arvid and it feels random and streaming. You cross long years effortlessly.

With all this Stieg Larsson craziness (The Girl series), I couldn’t help but think that the Swede has eclipsed the brilliant Norwegian Petterson simply by dying. Because if you’re looking to Scandinavia, there is a clear winner.

All the above being said, after finishing I Curse the River of Time, I felt in desperate need of a funny book…or my funny family.

Because, as you can see, this book is no laughing matter.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jim Olesen #

    This sounds like a brave read, one in which any expectations of uplift, or what used to be called, “redeeming value” is relinquished, unless the human experience one goes through in reading it is the value. Out Stealing Horses was surely one of the greats of recent years. It pulled one along almost breathlessly. A predecessor, In the Wake, seemed to take more from the reader, again a story of family in grief is strong.

    September 19, 2010
  2. Diane Johnson #

    I vote for your very funny family. I just finished City of Thieves. Great story, difficult circumstances make for a difficult but satisfying read. Made me long for your very funny family.

    September 19, 2010
  3. I probably would need to line up a funny movie and someone else’s funny family to read this book – but I certainly do love good writing and the passages you share truly made me write this book on my list…maybe not read the two of them together!

    September 20, 2010
  4. I love your blog (what I’ve read so far)! Would you consider adding a “search” feature, or at least a list of authors and titles so I could look for your take on specific books?

    September 28, 2010
  5. Lynne #

    I second Barb’s request – I’d love to search for titles (for example, would love to read your review of Out Stealing Horses as I disliked that book, found the writing tedious, didn’t care about the characters, etc., so I’d like to see what someone else found so compelling, but I don’t have time to go page by page by page to try to find it).

    Also, do you take recommendations? I’m sure that could be overwhelming – but if it was limited to only books you haven’t reviewed (need the search feature) and only the suggester’s top 3/5, it might be worthwhile.

    October 3, 2010

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