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the complete review - fiction
I Curse the River of Time
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A- : finely written, somber slice-of-life-at-a-turning-point account
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Stilistisk har Petterson likevel lært mye av Hemingway. Hemmeligheten bak hans medrivende språk ligger i den virtuose vekslingen mellom korte, sterke setninger og lange, suggestive formuleringer, atskilt med komma eller en manende bruk av bindeleddet «og». På denne måten gjør Petterson det alminnelige til noe unikt i tilværelsen. Ikke ved å forklare at det er det, men ved å vise det fram og la leserens reaksjon ligge som et minefelt mellom ordene." - Fredrik Wandrup, Dagbladet
- "Needless to say, it's a sad book, and at times it'll feel alien to readers who've never been young Communists or hung out in, say, Nittedal or Eidsvoll. (The translation can also be quite a rickety bridge.) But there's no denying the novel's Raymond Carver-like power" - Jeff Giles, Entertainment Weekly
- "In scenes of incomparable beauty Arvid attempts to establish, against November seascapes, a fuller contact with his often resistant mother. He does so while privately exploring key features of his past, both the part of it he shared with her and the part lived in deliberate independence. (...) Per Petterson stands unsurpassed among contemporary writers for existential truth-telling. If this English version cannot quite arrive at the often heart-breaking cadences of the original Norwegian, it successfully conveys its resonant juxtapositions of the homely and the metaphysical." - Paul Binding, Financial Times
- "Der neue Roman führt dieses Nachdenken über das Leben konsequent fort. Aus trauernder und skeptischer Reflexion wird radikaler Lebenszweifel. (...) Im Grunde brauchte man nur diesen schlichten Satz zu zitieren, um dieses wunderbare, melancholische, hoffnungslose, aber nie eisige Buch zu verstehen, das so groß ist, weil es den Menschen eigentlich gar nicht durchleuchten oder gar sezieren will und ihm so vielleicht am nächsten kommt." - Peter Urban-Halle, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "I Curse the River of Time is a work of blackest tragicomedy, a novel as cold and scintillating and desolate as the northern winter landscapes that are its setting." - Rachel Cusk, The Guardian
- "All the inevitability of life, its fragile glue and the doubts that stalk the survivors are summoned and considered in Petterson’s candid, allusive fiction. There is no easy sentiment, only genuine emotional power. His tender new novel is as masterfully evocative as In the Wake and Out Stealing Horses, as gentle as To Siberia, and as exceptional as all three." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times
- "(A) quiet Pietà of a novel (.....) Per Petterson is a master at writing the spaces between people." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times
- "Einmal mehr hat Per Petterson einen Desillusionierungsroman geschaffen, in dem das dunkle Geheimnis der Existenz magisch aufleuchtet -- über die dem Menschen zuträgliche halbe Wahrheit, über die Scham, die der Liebe innewohnt, die Einsamkeit, welche die Gemeinschaft fordert, über das Schwinden der Zuversicht und das notwendige Ausharren. Wo es den Figuren die Worte verschlägt, lässt Per Petterson die Szenen umso vielsagender sprechen. So viel Kraft wohnt seinen erzählerischen Endspielen inne, dass ihnen die Gnade zu entwachsen scheint." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "(A)t moments when a lot of American prose seems fizzy and over-rich, the sentences in I Curse the River of Time go down like an eye-watering shot of aquavit. They evoke a landscape, mental and otherwise, that while a little wintry and severe, is appealing precisely because it’s so off the beaten track." - Charles McGrath, The New York Times
- "It sounds bleak, but instead it’s rather dreamy and tenuous, like the thoughts one has in the brief moment between sleeping and waking. Clean sentence after clean sentence, Petterson conveys both the melancholy and the demi- pleasurable sensation of being fundamentally untethered. Petterson’s canny use of narrative leverage is one of the ways he achieves this quality." - Stacey D’Erasmo, The New York Times Book Review
- "Petterson’s atmospheric prose -- melancholy, tempered, and terse -- is the real force keeping the various plots in orbit." - The New Yorker
- "As soon as I opened I Curse the River of Time (one of the great titles), I understood the dementing lure. (...) Petterson’s interest is pictorial and spatial rather than logical and interrogative. His sentences yearn to fly away into poetry; it is rare to find prose at once so exact and so vague. Yet Petterson is novelistically acute about human motive and self-deception." - James Wood, The New Yorker
- "I Curse the River of Time describes an inner world where introspection is quite unmatched by insight, where narcissism is so acute that a middle-aged man is unable to offer even a modicum of kindness or support to a dying woman. Even Petterson’s writing, usually so fine and spare, seems clogged and repetitive (perhaps the fault of a new translator). Sensitive oedipal types may find pleasure in these pages. To others I would recommend Petterson’s previous books." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator
- "Arvid can be childish, and exasperating, and self-absorbed, but his voice is so soothing that these faults are easy to excuse. (...) The artles "and" is almost the only conjunction that Petterson uses, and its repetition encourages the idea that Arvid is simply pouring his thoughts on to the page, unmediated. He is an innocent (.....) A novel which depends so much more on tone, voice and atmosphere than on plot is especially in need of a skilful translator. In this case Petterson himself has worked with Charlotte Barslund to produce a version which is as scrupulous and lyrical as he could have wished. I Curse the River of Time will certainly add to Per Petterson's deservedly growing reputation." - Tim Souster, Times Literary Supplement
- "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." - Bob Thompson, The Washington Post
- "Die Geschichte von Arvid und seiner Mutter, für die es keine Lösung außerhalb ihrer beider wortkargen und zärtlichen Geschichte gibt, ist eine Etüde über Leben und Sterben." - Bernadette Conrad, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The protagonist of I Curse the River of Time, familiar from Petterson's other work, is Arvid Jansen.
He is thirty-seven here, his family falling apart as he is about to get a divorce.
At the same time his mother is diagnosed with cancer -- of the stomach, not, as the longtime-smoker had expected, of the lungs; it's not the first time she has had cancer, but it's a worrying diagnosis.
Arvid's mother's reaction is to head "home"; even after forty years in Norway she refers to Denmark as home, and she feels compelled to go back for a few days, on her own.
Arvid, already in the middle of one crisis and completely unanchored, follows her.
The title of the novel is taken from a poem by Mao, which Arvid quotes:
Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
He likes these lines because they:
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt time battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with you and run around beneath my skin like tiny electronic shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how much I tried.
The opening line of the novel is the only reminder that Arvid writes from an additional remove: "All this happened quite a few years ago" he writes, referring to that fall of 1989 when his marriage was near collapse and his mother diagnosed with cancer.
But the narrative focuses on that time, with Arvid also looking back from then, to his childhood and earlier adulthood -- but without revealing what happened after the few days described here, despite the fact that it was a few years ago .....
Many of the descriptions of what happened earlier in his life also focus on his relationship with his mother, including their shared love of books and her disappointment when he quit school and, dedicated Party-member and convinced Communist that he was, he took a factory-job.
In following her to Denmark, and in dredging up more memories of the past, Arvid tries to grasp for what has eluded him so long -- though hardly with more success.
As a young man Arvid was certain of what he had to do, placing his faith in the workers' struggle -- only to find it was not what he imagined: he had:
joined the proletariat which did not actually exist anymore, but was an anachronism.
I was a man out of time.
Or my character had a flaw, a crack in its foundation that would grow bigger year by year.
The present of the book is 1989, and reminders of his disillusionment are all the stronger because of what has happened: the fall of communism, the Tiananmen Square massacre (which he describes himself protesting against, a striking contrast to his youthful Maoist devotion).
While a worker some women entered his life, but yearnings for something more and different remained: then and now Arvid seems continually adrift, in all aspects of his life.
Remarkably, there's barely any mention or discussion of Arvid's marriage and his
two daughters: despite the distance (as he noted at the beginning: "All this happened quite a few years ago") it apparently is still too close, too raw a nerve for him to address; this small escape -- by following mama to Denmark -- seems just one in a long line of evasive maneuvers.
Not all the episodes Petterson describes are dark and sad, but there is a fairly pervasive gloom about: even in his calm, satisfied periods, Arvid seems only temporarily to have found a pocket of refuge, while the dark clouds surround him.
Displays of affection and love also tend to be reserved and dry; nevertheless, feelings seem genuine: Petterson conveys these complex relationships well in his understated, distanced way.
The episodes, past and present, are well-described.
Even at their most heavy-handed, the writing is effective -- for example when Arvid fells a pine tree while in Denmark, chopping at the roots:
I worked my way around the trunk, and some roots yielded right away while others need several blows.
Most were tough and filled with sap down from the core of the earth and would not let go.
But they had to let go.
There was no mercy and I swung the axe from left to right until nothing hung together any more.
That is, of course, what he is trying to do with his own life too -- cut those roots holding him down, despite the fact that there's still life in them.
With the pine tree, too, he seems defeated by the biggest root, which had "dug itself straight into the earth like an anchor", but eventually he is able to topple the tree -- and laugh:
Life lay ahead of me.
Nothing had been settled.
Despite the significant events in his life in 1989 -- and the memories of earlier times -- I Curse the River of Time only addresses a part of Arvid's life, an unsettled period that, at least, left him with some hope.
Indeed, the novel reads like a volume of a larger life-account: a turning-point, certainly, but only a chapter on a much longer path.
Impressive, in every respect.
- M.A.Orthofer, 10 July 2010
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I Curse the River of Time:
Other books by Per Petterson under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Norwegian author Per Petterson was born in 1952.
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© 2010-2012 the complete review
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