Out Stealing Horses ~ Per Petterson

I know that this was the prize winner, but I enjoyed his later work, To Siberia more. The latter novel was a lyrical marvel. Out Stealing Horses has its own sort of lyricism however: a lyricism of the everyday speech,  of sober reflection, the magical lyricism of observing nature. It’s a somber, melancholy and reflective novel, a novel of taking stock.

The storyteller is 67 yr old man (Trond Sander), and it begins in early September in Eastern Norway, just before the millenium. Trond lives alone with only one neighbor, Lars. He’s come there as his “last place”, to be alone. His second wife has died three years ago, his sister only recently, and what is left of his family doesn’t really know where he is. He retired after his wife died, and now has decided to make this move into isolation. A move from loneliness, to an embrace of it. His only true companion now, his dog, Lyra.

This “last place” (and he refers to it this way several times)  is just the thing for reflection and summing up, he believes. What has his life meant?

As a meditation on time, the story shifts between his new life in isolation, and his former life, at least as it was in 1948, when he was a fifteen year old boy, and had come with his father to a remote cabin in the woods. The family had been left behind in Oslo –  ostensibly intended as a temporary arrangement. There, one morning, his best friend, Jon, a haunted and strange boy decide to go  “out stealing horses”.  “Stealing” is their code for illicitly riding a neighbors horses for a while. After the (very brief) ride there is an incident with a bird’s nest and a bird’s egg that startles young Trond. The events of that morning, and the reasons for them – in fact the real reasons for Trond and his father to have come there at all – are the basis for all subsequent events.

His new neighbor Lars, it turns out, was Jon’s brother. In ’48, Jon had left out a rifle, having gotten distracted, and Lars had accidentally killed his twin brother. Trond now finds that this same Lars is his closest neighbor. As Trond notes, this is the sort of coincidental occurrence that you could never put into a novel. But Petterson has.

With a voice no less spare than Coetzee’s, Petterson allows Trond to reveal the whole story through both reflection as his elderly self, as well as through the eyes of a 15-year old boy just coming to manhood.

There are some wonderful scenes here One in particular from that ’48 summer when Trond and his father revel in a rain storm, soap up and sprint outside to shower under the skies. Scenes of rural life (haying, logging) are told with a gentle longing for that life-style.

Trond fears becoming a “shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world, except in his own liquid thoughts, where time has lost its sequence.” Yet he also firmly believes “that we shape our own fate – not destiny.” This is one of the hard lessons that he learned from his father – who always told him that we “decide for ourselves, when it will hurt”. But it’s his daughter Ellen, who has sought him  out, and reminds him of his prodigious reading of Dickens, who he used to read to her. She quotes to him from the opening lines of David Copperfield: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero in my own life, or whether that station shall be held by anyone else, these pages must show.”

In that ’48 summer, he and his father had felled many trees for logging downstream into Sweden to the sawmill. Why would only become Apparent later. So unlike his father, he had rushed the job (it was the wrong season) and so there was a logjam down river where the river was too low. Trond is instrumental in freeing the logjam, so that the timber can make its way. Ellen’s appearance has had a similar effect on her father, who has come to the realisation that he doesn’t need the isolation to make sense of his life. Memories, after all, can be talked about and shared. We all have them.

“and when someone says the past is a foreign country, but they do things differently there, then  I  have probably felt that way for most of my life, because I’ve been obliged to.  But I’m not anymore. If I just concentrate, I can walk into memories store and find the right shelf”.

It’s like pulling memories down for examination, and then putting them back in their proper place. We need not live there, but we can always use them as a reference point for our lives.


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