“People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are” (73).
So says Trond Sander, the terse narrator of Per Petterson’s novel Out Stealing Horses. He insinuates that we will have to work hard to see the significance behind his spare, understated confidences. Trond is sixty-seven and he has retreated to a rustic cabin by a lake in a remote village in Norway. He seeks solitude, quiet, and has not even told his own grown children of his whereabouts. We sense that something has driven this man to become a recluse, to bury himself in a rudimentary hut without gas or even a telephone. Yet Per Petterson will not be rushed. Instead, the circumstances of Trond’s retirement are revealed gradually, and the hauntings he is subject to are only haltingly explained.
Petterson won the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Award for Out Stealing Horses and has since garnered quite a fan base in the English language. Indeed, the translation by Anne Born has been endorsed by Petterson as perhaps even better than the Norwegian original, as he more or less had to rewrite the novel in the course of collaborating with his translator. His readership is set to grow with the release of his latest novel I Curse the River of Time. It seems that this is a very successful year for him as I came to read Out Stealing Horses because it has been listed as a text for the new International Baccalaureate English syllabus in the Literature in Translation part of the course. It is a worthy addition and it means that many new readers will be exposed to this melancholy and beautiful book.
Trond is an evasive and somewhat prickly narrator. Reclusive and careful of his privacy he confesses at first only that, “All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this” (5). He withholds the details, and, if the reader is tempted to assume that this man is some kind of failure or wash-up, he refutes these ideas. He claims to have wanted a place like his hut, “Even when everything was going well, as it often did. … I have been lucky” (5). We later learn that a nickname contrived by his wife and sister was “the boy with the golden trousers” because he always seemed able to reach into his pocket for luck. But, despite feeling “spry” he claims, ominously, that “it would be nice finally to have some rest” (176) and the narrative that follows seems like a reckoning. Both his wife and sister have died within a month of each other, and since then Trond has “lost interest in talking to people” (123). He fills his time chopping firewood against the coming winter, arranging for snow to be cleared, and fixing up the many dilapidations around his house. He has the money to get the renovations done by tradesmen, but he prefers to keep busy, “I want to use the time it takes. Time is important to me now … Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside” (6). And here Petterson signals one of the abiding preoccupations of his novel; as it turns out, time, or more precisely, a certain period of time, is something Trond needs to sort out. The novel is structured around a series of flashbacks as Trond discovers that his neighbour, the enigmatic Lars Haug, was a boy he knew during a fateful summer in 1948, more than fifty years earlier.
Trond’s first meeting with Lars is in the dark outside his hut; the neighbour is searching for his dog Poker, who is wayward and half-feral. Lars confesses that he had to shoot a dog once, and what follows is a vignette told in the night between strangers. It leaves Trond – and the reader – with an eerie feeling, “For some reason I locked the door behind me, something I have not done since I moved out here” (14). Petterson’s skill as a novelist is partly revealed in such moments when we see how he is able to show his protagonist’s consciousness going out ahead of his intentions. The novel is filled with many such understated but important shifts. These portray how we often know something beneath the level of conscious awareness and act on that intuition before we have even registered our hunch or perceptions: “Now suddenly I am sure. Lars is Lars even though I saw him last when he was ten years old, and now he’s past sixty” (67). The eerie feeling, it turns out, is derived from the fact that Lars is, in many ways, telling a ‘screen story’ – a confession that conceals its real content. He may have shot a dog, but, much more importantly, he also shot his twin brother, Odd, in a gruesome accident in the summer of 1948, an accident Trond remembers.
The events of that summer come to occupy Trond’s thoughts, and the reader is privy to his attempts to sort through the meaning of that mysterious season just three years after the Nazis left Norway and a whole way of life was in the process of disappearing. An early chapter details the now-vanished process of haymaking which required many members of the community to pitch in, whereas “today there is one man alone on a tractor, and then the drying on the ground and the mechanical turner and wrapping machines and huge plasticwhite cubes of stinking silage” (66). Petterson gives us precisely rendered details that in their physicality call up lost time — the heat of the summer sun on skin, the smell of drying hay, a woodsman’s hands stained with tree sap, the jolt up the spine as his narrator rides bareback. The writing is closely observant of the physical world, especially the natural world, and, through Trond, it gives the reader a strong relationship with this landscape and his attachment to spruce and wind and mountains, “It was a part of my life many years ago in a way that nothing later has been” (123). The sixty-seven year old Trond reflects that such memories give him a “feeling of pleasure” that nevertheless show that “time has passed, that it is very long ago, and the sudden feeling of being old” (66).
Yet this is more than an old man’s memories; the nostalgia is complicated by something darker. That summer of 1948 Trond stayed with his father – just the two of them, away from his sister and mother – in a cabin by a river that flows into nearby Sweden. What seems like the premise for a boy’s own idyll becomes a watershed. It is the last decent stretch of time he spends with his father, “before he disappeared from our lives.” It is the locus of Trond’s lost childhood; he was fifteen at the time, on the cusp of adult awareness of things going on around him “which I did not understand even though I knew I was close enough to reach out my hand as far as I could, and then maybe reach the whole way and know the meaning of it all” (103). During that summer he is friends with Jon, a toughened, taciturn boy who lives on a neighbouring farm. He notices that his father and Jon’s father never look each other in the eye, and we begin to suspect it has something to do with the Nazi occupation, just a few short years before. The relationship, too, between his father and Jon’s mother, is clearly more than a casual acquaintanceship, yet the precise nature of the tie remains obscure for some time.
The narrative turns on a number of revealing moments. Each is unwrapped in Trond’s memory, held up, apprehensively examined, and pieced together. There is an undertow of reluctance to Trond’s narrative – the recalled summer of his youth is pleasure and loss in equal parts. Trond does not wish to return to this time, and yet, like the river that runs past his father’s cabin, it has an insistent, ineluctable current. Petterson’s attention to sensory detail brings each memory back to life, exhumed from the past, perfectly formed and still etched with the emotional confusion and intensity of adolescence. In a magical sequence Trond goes looking for his father, who is missing from the cabin in the middle of the night. The moonlight walk is rendered in its silence, “I spread my fingers out as I walked between the dark tree trunks, like down a corridor of pillars, and let my hands slide through the air, slowly up and then down again in the powdery light” (111). Such moments form a picture of a vanished world that has in no small way made Trond who he became in adulthood, “life had shifted its weight from one point to another, from one leg to another, like a silent giant in the vast shadows against the ridge, and I did not feel like the person I had been when this day began” (111).
Jon and he spend their days in hunting, climbing and other adolescent escapades such as “stealing horses”. Inexplicably, Jon has a sudden and furious breakdown during one of their outings, crushing the nest and eggs of a goldcrest as they sit high up the branches of a tree. What begins as an illegible act clarifies, in the coming days, into a ritual that symbolises the tragedy that has unfolded in Jon’s family – his brother Lars has shot his twin Odd with a loaded gun that Jon left out in a moment of forgetfulness. As the summer runs its course, Trond discovers a reality behind the actions and silences of the adults around him. It removes forever that oblivious security that had been his childhood life, instead marking him with a presentiment of mortality, “I felt it somewhere inside me; a small remnant, a bright yellow speck that perhaps would never leave me” (59). The intrigues and loss that surround Trond at fifteen become the basis for his initiation into adult complexity and grief; he realises “in a sudden panic that what my father said and how things really were, were not necessarily the same, and that made the world liquid and hard to hold on to” (104).
The narrative is full of the small loyalties and betrayals that make up family and village life, as well as the sense of historical sweep one gets in novels set in war-time. However, we also see Trond being more than subject to larger forces, but an interpreter of his own life, and it is this which empowers him to ride the river of experience with the right amount of boldness and level-headedness. In a moment when he contemplates violence, for example, he pulls back, realising that it would set off “a chain reaction … which no-one could stop, and there would be no running back, no retracing my steps.” While poor ten-year-old Lars and his brother Jon are left with an irrevocable moment, Trond notices the gift he has been given, to know when he has an opportunity to pull back from the brink, “I have been lucky. I have said that before. But it’s true” (259).
Petterson’s novel is highly symbolic. The river that runs through it, as palpable as the characters themselves, is clearly used to convey a sense of time being both irreversible and yet all of the same stream and element. The lumber harvest that occupies Trond and his father throughout that summer seems likely to fail, as the trees are sent down the river before their sap is dry just as the river level is lowering. Petterson thereby hints at foreshortened lives and unrealized hopes that run aground. These aspects of the novel form a dense emotional background to Trond’s sparsely rendered tale. Set against small and large-scale tragedy, what seems to undergird Trond’s narrative is the astonishment of one unfairly granted life while others have perished – someone with “golden trousers.” Petterson asks us to ponder the vertigo and grace of this freedom.