Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
This book was lying around the house, and the Missus said it was interesting, and I didn’t have any more novels on my stack, so I thought I’d give it a try. Petterson is a Norwegian writer with five novels to his credit, a former librarian whose fiction has won several awards. Too, it has received a glowing review in the New York times. So. How could I lose?
The story’s narrator in this first person, largely present tense account, is a nondescript man, Trond Sander. Following the death of his daughter and wife, he heads for the Norwegian outback (read: taiga, or tundra) to live. It’s not completely clear what his reason for this is, except to, in some fashion, simplify his life. But simplification to Sander doesn’t mean divesting himself of wealth, property, and accompanying responsibilities – instead the simplification he seems to be looking for is an internal one.
In his new, rural home, things are indeed simple – and humble. He has no phone, only a beat-up Japanese car, and has somehow gained sufficient food and shelter to get him through the Norwegian winter.
In his new home, he connects with old friend, Jon, with whom Trond remembers several youthful gambits, including the eponymous tale of “stealing” horses. Following this, Jon leaves a loaded shotgun in the presence of two younger, twin brothers, Odd and Lars, and predictably, one of them, Odd, kills himself accidentally with the gun. Jon, meanwhile has gone away to sea, only to return to take over the family property from Lars, who seems not to care – at least to Trond.
There are other writerly contrivances, memories of cutting hay as a child with Trond’s father and others, launching timber into a river to float it to market, the Nazi occupation during WWII, and Trond’s father a member of the Norse resistance.
My overriding question throughout most of the book: So what? There are no real epiphanies, few significant memories or understandings coming from the physical labor to which the older Trond puts his shoulder. There are two significant memories, though, both near book’s end, following a visit by Trond’s surviving daughter, both memories involving Trond’s parents. The rest of the book seems a prelude to these two memories, the rest perhaps laying this pair’s groundwork.
Petterson does create mood; I’ll give him that. And perhaps a lot of what I have a problem with is the translation by Anne Born. Where so many writers, especially the less skilled, seem to depend too much on dialogue to more character and story, along, Petterson’s book seems overly dependent on his first person narrative. As a result, the book was a hard, somewhat boring experience for this reader. And in an apparent attempt to emulate Hemingway, either writer or translator (I have no knowledge of the Norse language’s structure) succumbed to rambling, poorly punctuated sentences that keep the reader from losing his/herself in the story.
The thrust of Petterson’s effort here is a historically noble one – to equate solitary existence in the wilds with the inner resolution of a life. I only wish I could pick Petterson’s mind as to how he rationalized structuring his story – and this manner of human resolution – in the way he did. Perhaps then I’d find his writing more likeable.
My rating: 2-3/4 of 5 stars