A Scandinavian tale: Per Petterson’s In the Wake. London. Vintage Books. (2002).

Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was my year’s best read in 2011, so I have been keen to read more of this Norwegian writer’s oevre. In the Wake is similarly brooding, with a close exploration of family relationships, grief and loss. The tensions of the father-son bond, in particular, seem to be Petterson’s territory. As with Out Stealing Horse, the protagonist of In the Wake struggles to come to terms with a father whom he strove to please and who is now vanished. In Out Stealing Horses, the father disappears without a trace, but his presence in the son’s life, although enigmatic, is not simply destructive. By contrast, In the Wake portrays a father-son relationship that is deeply flawed, and which casts a shadow over the son’s sense of himself.

Arvid wakes one early morning to find himself outside a bookshop where he has not worked for two years. He is hungover, disorientated, has lost his wallet, has a black eye and two broken ribs: “I start to weep. I have been on my way down for a long time, and now I am there. At rock bottom” (14). This is the beginning of a descent into hell for Petterson’s protagonist. He is forced to confront the emotional mess he is in after having lost both parents and his younger siblings in a ferry disaster off the coast of Denmark six years before. His only surviving sibling, an older brother, is distant and, after his wife files for divorce, attempts suicide. Arvid is deeply lonely, adrift in his grief and unable to find more than the most tenuous connections with others. A writer by trade, his current project has languished, a series of incomplete fragments for which Arvid has no real enthusiasm.

In the Wake is a haunting exploration of a perennial theme of modern literature – the ‘crack up’. Arvid is so unmoored from life that he does not even recognise his own face in the mirror, “I stand in front of the mirror in the hall. It is difficult to focus, but there is someone there, I’ve seen him before. I nod, and he nods, and then I recognise myself” (55). His fragile connection to his brother is marred by silence and his own anger at him for having attempted death, “you trying to get out of everything and leave me alone” (199). What’s more, the troubling relationship he had with his father is broken off, unredeemed, as his father perished in the ferry fire.

Arvid’s journey is long one, but despite the bleakness, there is a glimmer of optimism at its core. Gradually, Arvid makes connections with others, similarly adrift in an alienating universe. The first is Naim Hajo, a Kurdish refugee who lives with his family in the floor above. This man’s humility and stoicism are a guiding star in Arvid’s own struggles to be at home in the world. The two men – one a native of Oslo and one far from home — mirror each other’s lostness:

“he points at me and says: “Problem,” and I do not deny it.

…he points to his own heart.

“Problem,” he says again (185).”

The other connection Arvid makes it to Mrs Grinde, a single mother who lives in the adjoining apartment block and whose light Arvid watches through his sleepless nights. In a midnight conversation, Arvid tells Grinde a story about his relationship with his father he has never told before: he saw his father ill in the hospital and, perhaps to protect his father’s pride as athletic and invincible, turns away before his father has seen him, rather than acknowledge the older man’s weakness, “he never turned around, just held his stomach and his face to the wall as he wept. … I held my breath, turned silently, and walked away” (83). It is a moment that demonstrates for Petterson’s protagonist again the power of story. His confessions to Mrs Grinde knit his raw experience together and help him reach out to another.

Scattered throughout Petterson’s tale are the cultural references that furnish Arvid’s emotional and intellectual landscape. Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, and the Haiku of Basho are all mentioned and provide a kind of gloss to Petterson’s aesthetic. The passages where Arvid attempts to outrun his grief and pain by driving the backroads beyond Oslo, and his memories of hitchhiking and backpacking to visit his brother studying in England glow with precisely observed detail. The latter in particular have the flavour of the itinerant poet on the road:

There was an oil refinery there with BP painted in yellow and green on the great shiny tanks and a tower where a gas flame crackled and burned at the top and threw enough light for me to find my way up between two big rocks. I decided it would not rain that night and unpacked my sleeping bag and spread it straight on to the ground and crept into it with all my clothes on. I was exhausted and happy and fell asleep at once, and the few times I woke I looked straight up at the sky with its multitude of stars, and I knew the names of the biggest ones, and I saw the gas flame shining and heard it crackling and felt at home in the world (149).

Arvid’s nostalgia is, of course, tainted with the knowledge of all that is lost thereafter. There are also references to Scandinavian writers and heroes that are a bit mysterious to Anglophone readers. One such is the novel The Class Warrior by Svante Foerster which the protagonist reads obsessively, but with which I am unfamiliar. However, Arvid’s admiration for Carver does give a clue for English language readers to Petterson’s concerns with alienation and the search for redemptive meaning in the luminous moments of ordinary life.

Arvid has taken six years to admit that his pain is “unbearable” but his admission is the first step in a return to life. In a grim reconciliation with his brother, both men make a toast, “cleaned out, rock bottom”. In the Wake has a structural simplicity when compared to the architectural finesse of Out Stealing Horses; however, both are striking for the economical use of language to give a lyrical effect and a powerful exploration of loss and family bonds. The brothers’ toast is about as optimistic as the novel gets, but I find this kind of reading more nourishing than simple affirmation.

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