Saturday, October 23, 2021

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

Per Petterson was recommended to me as being superior to Karl Ove Knausgaard.  I have purchased all six books of Knaus’s My Struggle, but have not been sure I am up to Knaus’s pessimism and so decided to turn to one of Petterson’s novels.  I selected his I Curse the River of Time because it was purported to take place during the Cold War and the the collapse of the Berlin war.  I knew a fair amount about that time and thought it would be much easier to read than anything by Knausgaard.  Alas, that was not to be the case.  

Knaus has been criticized for having written a memoir and called it a novel.  Petterson writes in the first person as though he were writing a memoir, but assures his readers and critics that this is merely the device he prefers and when he writes a novel that is what it is.

Also, Petterson in I Curse the River of Time skips back and forth between the time when he is 22, right before fall of the Berlin wall, and the time 15 years later when his mother, who has stomach cancer, is preparing to die.  

Arvid is not like his mother.  He thinks she is wonderful and compares her to Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, but makes a point of saying that she would never have invited Humphrey Bogart (In Casablanca) to do her thinking for her.  In a brief description of her interacting with Arvid's father we see her as the dominant one in the family; although she isn't interested enough to guide her sons through life.

Arvid at one point chides her for always reading German novels, especially those of Gunter Grass.   She accuses him of being intellectually lazy, but he says it was a matter of principle because he hates the Nazis.  She becomes furious, points a trembling index finger at his nose and says, “what do you know about Germany and German History and what happened there. You Squirt.”

Petterson published his novel two years after Gunter Grass confessed that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS in World War II.  Was it a coincidence that Petterson has Arvid’s mother be a great admirer of Grass?  Probably not.

At the end of the novel, Arvid’s mother is standing alone in the sand in weather that is much too cold.  Arvid watches but doesn't consider going to her.  She doesn’t want him too.  After a long time she can stand no longer and sinks to her knees.  How does she want to die?  Not as her father or mother did.  Not as her uncle.  I imagine she will die bitterly, with perhaps a snarl on her face, something Arvid won’t see because he is afraid to approach her.

Earlier Arvid takes a dog to a vet to be put to death.  The vet tells Arvid he is sure he will want to see the dead dog so he can say goodbye to it.  Arvid complies, but afterwards hates that he went along with this expectation, and sits for a long time banging his steering wheel before driving off.  I assume he hates that he will be carrying the vision of the dead dog around with him for the foreseeable future.  If his mother dies there in the sand, and she will if he doesn't do something about her, he will then see her and  never afterward be able to see her as Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergman.

(To be continued)

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