Per Petterson’s latest novel has the same frostbitten appeal as his earlier works. The landscape happens to compliment the souls of his characters. Petterson’s novels have an unmistakable signature, and here the flow of words are perfectly represented by the River of the title. And time is a river that flows without cease.
It’s 1989, and thirty-seven year old Arvid Jansen’s life is about to change radically. With two daughters, he’s got a wife that wants a divorce. This will be just another disappointment for his mother, who had such high hopes for him: college education and a good career – the first in the family to move up that particular ladder. When he decided to become a communist and join the proletariat (following in his fathers footsteps) his mother was not pleased. They’ve been estranged since that tine, and now word comes that his mother is dying of stomach cancer. She’s taken off to a summer cottage where they’d spent much time, and Arvid follows her. In the midst of all this personal turmoil, the Berlin Wall has fallen. This sets the stage for another of Petterson’s novels that can only be described as a reverie, a rumination of the nature of times passage, dying and reconciliation.
Petterson includes some of his hallmark passages on nature. These are beautiful and soothing.
The taxi drove on across the windswept open stretch of marram grass and sand and scrub, which the wind kept down at knee height one year after the other, and the sea lay taut this early morning like a blue-grey porous skin and the sky above the sea was white as milk. Where the tarmac turned into gravel, the car pulled in between the ancient dog roses and gnarled pine trees and the whole trip lasted no more than a quarter of an hour. It was odd, she thought, for it felt like driving in slow motion, the gentle mist outside the car window, the grey light across the water, and the island out there where the beams from the lighthouse still cast pale, lazy flashes, and the last rosehips still hung from the bushes, each of them glowing red, blue almost, like little Chinese lanterns.
This is a novel rich in literary references, something readers should love. There are probably even more cinema references though. Arvid’s mother is well read (“she was always reading, always had a book tucked into her bag”), and the one thing got from her was this passion. They are often on the same wave-length. Arvid buys a bottle of Calvados when he goes to visit his mother, a drink that played a large part in Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph. There’s Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum and Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. Many of the books they talk about are classics that Arvid’s mother comments on regarding the stages of life. Arch of Triumph, for instance, is best read “under twenty when you read it for the first time.”. She’s also something of an outsider, born in Denmark, but having spent most of her adult life in Oslo.
When the Berlin Wall falls, Arvid increasingly feels like a “man out of time.” An anachronism, no longer able to connect with the workers.
Arvid asks his mother if she is afraid of dying. There is no fear of dying, it’s just that she doesn’t want to die now. She’d like to see the social changes afoot. Arvid on the other hand, is afraid of dying,
Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone forever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. Then that must feel like someone’s strong hands slowly tightening their grip around your neck until you can breathe no more, and not at all as when a door is slowly pushed open and bright light comes streaming out from the inside and a woman or a man you have always known and always liked, maybe always loved, leans out and gently takes you hand and leads you in to a place of rest, so mild and so fine, from eternity to eternity.
A different feel than the one popularly portrayed in film. We’re fond of that light at the end of the tunnel – the gentle transition to everlasting peace. But death is focused on only at the end, as is the Fall of The Berlin Wall. We know Arvid’s mother is dying from the outset, but see confronts her demise only at the end. The divorce – we know about it immediately – is hardly mentioned, but the life changing events itself is ever present. Does Arvid reconcile with his mother at the end? Maybe. Each reader can decide for themselves. But we ultimately die alone as is clear…