I Curse the River of Time
Per Petterson
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Buy *I Curse the River of Time* by Per Petterson online

I Curse the River of Time
Per Petterson
240 pages
August 2011
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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The talented author of Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson, once again treats readers to an evocative tale of regret and longing set in Scandinavia. Arvid Jansen’s life is falling apart. He is drinking too much, trying one more time to get close to his dying mother, mourning the ending of his marriage, and ruminating over a less than exemplary past. With woebegone Arvid serving as the primary narrator, chapters fluctuate between his happier youthful memories (of the old apartment where he first sought his mother’s undivided attention, his brothers and their relationships, and the oft-remembered ferry ride to their summer home); his young adulthood as a communist who corrupts a perhaps way-too-young female student; and current-day missteps intruding on his mother’s final assignations with old friends.

Petterson’s title originates in Arvid’s past, lines from one of Mao’s poems:

Fragile images of departure, the village back then
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed.
The couplet impeccably captures the tone of Arvid’s reflections, and those of his mother as well.

With his typically spare prose, the author once again paints somber gray portraits of Oslo and Denmark, rendered mostly in harsh winters. Politics, introduced by the young Arvid’s involvement in the “people’s movement,” is revisited with the fall of the Berlin Wall, just as Arvid’s life is tumbling around him. As a young worker, Arvid had noted:

“There was a wide open sky over Jan Myrdal’s sentences. The world unfolded in all its majesty, back in time, forward in time, history was one long river and we were all borne along by that river. People all over the world had the same yearnings, the same dreams and stood hand in hand in one great circle around the globe.”
Petterson injects sparks of humor in an otherwise grim story, usually through Arvid’s scathingly honest self-reflections and his mother’s snappy comments and gestures. For some reason that is difficult to pinpoint, the book emits a certain hopefulness. Arvid calls to mind a capsized passenger who just keeps treading water, not necessarily swimming any closer to safety, but constantly managing to keep his head above water.
“I have never really been able to see enormous changes coming until the last minute, never seen 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.”
Part of Arvid’s consuming pain is the realization of how devastating the death of his brother continues to be to his mother, serving to make him feel like a less-loved son. But there is something more happening in this work, something that feels slightly uncomfortable—an admittance of a sexual crush on the woman who is his lovely mother.

The ending of I Curse the River of Time is not as pointedly powerful as the celebrated Out Stealing Horses with its unforgettable final phrase, “we do decide for ourselves when it will hurt.” Yet there is something about Arvid that will leave readers wishing Petterson had given us more, perhaps a glimpse of peace.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Leslie Raith, 2011

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