The picture of Mao I had was the well-known retouched photograph where he sits hunched over his desk writing with one of those Chinese brush pens, and I always thought, or hoped, that it was not one of his political or philosophical articles he was writing, but one of his poems, perhaps the one which begins:
Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
for it showed the human Mao, someone I was drawn to, someone who had felt how time was battling his body, as I had felt it so often myself; how time without warning could catch up with me and run around beneath my skin like tiny electric shocks and I could not stop them, no matter how hard I tried. – from I Curse the River of Time, page 56 –
Avrid Jansen is thirty-seven years old and has spent nearly twenty years searching for the truth through Communism. But now the year is 1989 and Communism is unraveling. Avrid is faced with a crisis of identity when his marriage fails and he learns that his mother has cancer, and everything he has believed in seems to be crumbling. When Avrid discovers his mother has left Norway to return to Denmark where she was born and raised, he boards a ferry to join her at their summer house.
Per Petterson’s novel I Curse The River of Time is the story of a man and his mother – two people who have drifted apart and are now brought back together. The story is non linear and told almost entirely from Avrid’s limited point of view. Avrid remembers moments from his childhood and the early days of his marriage. Gradually, the fault lines in his relationships and his insecurities are revealed. The reader discovers that Avrid has rejected his parents’ wish that he be educated and leave behind his working class roots. Instead, in alignment with his Communist leanings, Avrid chooses to leave college and go to work in the factory where his father once toiled.
[…] I wanted to be part of the working class, which, for Christ’s sake I already was, and always had been. The whole point, for them, was that I should stop being working class so they could all be proud of me, because I had been allowed to go farther. – from I Curse the River of Time, page 145 –
There is much in the novel that remains ambiguous and unnamed. Avrid’s mother seems to have a history which is largely secret, or at least Avrid remains ignorant of it. Because of this, the novel takes on a drifting, dreamlike atmosphere which I found bleak. Avrid fumbles and struggles with his identity as son, husband and Maoist. At times he seems to lack any insight into who he is and who he wishes to be, and he sees his life as something which he has little control over.
I have never really been able to see enormous changes coming until the last minute, never see how one trend conceals another, as Mao used to say, how the one flowing right below the surface can move in a whole different direction than the one you thought everyone had agreed on, and if you did not pay attention when everything was shifting, you would be left behind alone. – from I Curse the River of Time, page 67 –
Petterson’s prose is spare and reflective, and he provides little hope in a novel about loss, isolation, regret, and confused identity. The landscape of a wintry Norway and Denmark are a perfect backdrop to the story. In fact, the descriptions of scene were some of my favorites in the book.
I Curse the River of Time revisits some of the themes from Petterson’s award winning book Out Stealing Horses (read my review) – those of identity, a boy’s ambivalence with a parent, grief and loss – but it is a much bleaker book. I can’t say I enjoyed the novel as it is a sad meditation on aging, marriage and the child/parent relationship, but I did respect the writing which allows the reader to fully realize the character development.
Readers who enjoy literary fiction in translation and who have appreciated Petterson’s previous work might want to give this one a try.
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