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I Curse the River of Time

March 10, 2011

Per Petterson, in his novel, I Curse the River of Time, appears to break one of the cardinal rules students of fiction writing learn: the main character must change.  Arvid, the first person narrator of the novel, does not in fact change much if at all over the course of the story he tells, even though we get a chance to encounter him at several periods in his life. Even the readers’ understanding of him and his situation changes little.

Things do happen to Arvid; it is his world that is changing and he attempts, sometimes desperately, to respond to these changes. In being privy to his complicated responses, however, we change our relationship to the narrator as we read, developing deeper feelings and empathy for Arvid, resulting in a kinship that is not commonly felt with fictional characters. I Curse the River of Time is a very interesting novel, in my view, because it remains true to a complex view of human psychological reality (How much do people really change? How much do we understand about what happens to us, to our relationships? How much are we changed by circumstance and bumping up against them?) that may run counter to what readable fiction wants , while being palpably a piece of art—created, compressed, and sculpted—and providing the coherence, distance, and pleasures that art provides.

The most obvious component of artfulness in the novel is the layering of time frames and the choice of controlling narrative voice. There are three time zones in the novel: the present, referred to only very infrequently and in passing, when the narrator is in his fifties; 1989, the year the narrator’s wife asks for a divorce, his mother finds out she has stomach cancer and the Berlin Wall falls; and a time period in the 1970s, when the narrator leaves college in order to work in a factory and first meets the schoolgirl who is to become his wife. We get information about the narrator’s childhood, but only in relation to these other periods. The second two time periods are the ones that take up the bulk of narrative time and provide the story.

The current time, the locus of telling, however, has several subtle but important functions and they are announced with the utmost economy. The sentence which opens the novel, “All this happened quite a few years ago” (3) introduces the retrospective narrator and demonstrates one function: the present as compass point, referent. Later in the first chapter, a new section begins, “I cannot imagine she [the narrator’s mother] craved company in the cafeteria…” (11). Later still, “Nothing in the world was obvious to me back then…, nothing was simple” (110). These lines offer some commentary on, or are interpretative of, events in the past, but not in a lengthy or particularly illuminating way. The third type functions to show doubt in the accuracy of memory. “I don’t know how long I sat in that boat…” (75).  In none of these instances is the storyteller placed in a specific situation that prompts a memory, or even a chair from which to tell the story, but his presence permeates and complicates our reading.

What is Petterson’s reason for choosing the retrospective voice if he uses it only infrequently and briefly? Alice Mattison, in her recent essay in The Writer’s Chronicle, “Uncertainties That Keep a Reader Reading,” which focuses on curiosity as the driving force of any novel, argues that a narrative presence gives authority; it gives the reader the feeling that someone is in control and that everything being told is told for a reason. While reading I Curse the River of Time, the reader is always aware that the story is being told from the present; the narrator is, in a sense, managing the layering of time as he tells the story. This in turn makes palpable the art of the novel, the fact that we are being given filtered, contained reality, not the messy thing we live in our daily lives. I believe that the retrospective voice also functions thematically by adding a third layer of time to complicate our understanding of emotional reality: the fifty-year-old narrator is telling us a story that is not finished. The events happened, as he says, “quite a few years ago,” but still he is pondering them, trying to make sense of them, and the tone of the telling is not one of a man who has now found the answers. The river of time in the title continues and, I imagine, he continues to curse it.

What brings the reader close to the narrator, and builds an emotional connection to him and the story he tells, has much to do with the narrator’s vulnerability—his mistakes and his inability to understand why things are happening to him, particularly in the relationships he has with his wife and his mother. Arvid frequently fails to communicate his intentions in a straightforward or comprehensible fashion, which both he and the reader recognize. He states from the beginning that he was not close to his mother when she finds out that she has cancer and returns to her native country, Denmark. “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual… but it felt unusual. It felt unusual because it was intentional on my part. I was trying to avoid her, and I did so for I had no wish to hear what she might say about my life” (21).  However, the narrator decides, capriciously, to follow his mother.  One would think he would do this to aid or comfort her. Instead, in their first encounter on the beach, she asks him whether he needs money, and he thinks: “Jesus Christ. I knew she was ill, that she might even die: it was why I was here. It was why I had come after her. I was sure of it, and yet I said: ‘Mother, I’m getting a divorce'” (37).

The narrator often juxtaposes thoughts and actions in this way, without a simplifying explanation or interpretation from the supposed wisdom of years, and I find this to be terribly honest. Many novelists, even while using first person narrative, pry open a space after an action to reflect and interpret, if not from the narrator’s current perspective then from the perspective of years. I’m certain I do this. But there are things in life that we never get right and we might never know why or, if we do, we might not be able to change. This lack of interpretation, because in a way what interpretation does is shut something down, or finish it, draws me close to the narrator. I feel for him and with him. In some respects, I am him. In fact, in the novel we get scene after scene where the narrator seeks his mother’s love as a sort of refuge from reality and she doesn’t give it, at least not the way he wants. But that doesn’t stop the narrator from wanting it. The last line of the novel shows the narrator sitting on the shore, “waiting for [his] mother to stand up and come to [him]” (233). I find this repetition on the part of the narrator recognizable, and the inclusion of it, in fact the building of a whole novel around it, a naked and honest move.  Fortunately, these choices do not bog the novel down or make it boring because there is enough artfulness in its other aspects to keep one wanting to read.

A similar dynamic emerges as the narrator tells the story of his impending divorce. Chapter Three more fully introduces the narrator’s own circumstances in 1989, with two young daughters and on the brink of divorce. He takes his daughters on a day-trip that has no greater purpose than to watch fields and stop for a bite to eat. When they return home, his girls go straight to their bedroom, and he hears his wife’s footsteps before he sees her. He closes his eyes and keeps them closed. His wife says, “For Christ’s sake, Arvid… Please stop that. It’s so childish” (28) but he does not want to open his eyes, even though she’s right. He doesn’t want to see with his eyes what he knows. “It was all so clear to see. She [his wife] did not like [him] any more. She did not want [him]” (28).

The loveliest and saddest part of the novel comes toward the end, when readers are told the story of the beginning of the narrator’s relationship with the teenage girl who is to become his wife. In the final scene of the penultimate chapter, Arvid and his lover take a bus to a children’s camp on a lake where he went as a child. It is winter, and they are the last people on the bus, planning to stay for just one night in a cabin with a wood-fired stove. “…We had to make the most of this day, and then I fell asleep, and we both slept, and we woke up and went to sleep again” (209). What I find wonderful, and different about the inclusion of this scene at this point in the novel is that its purpose is not to finally reveal the experience from the past (in this case the overnight at the camp) that explains the problems of the present (the divorce). Often novelists turn in climax to such a past event to elucidate the main character’s psyche and, by doing so, sew up the novel. Petterson, by contrast, gives us the episode to make us feel more intensely the loss that the divorce entails, and its inexplicability. We see the couple’s young and aimless love on the lake, and we do not, in that, see seeds of their demise.

No, we see them behaving as any young lovers on holiday might: sleeping a lot, making love, smoking, and discussing gender roles: “‘Why don’t you row?’ she said. ‘Oh, sorry. Did you want to?’ I said. ‘It’s fine. I can sit here and watch you toil. You just row.’ She was probably good at rowing. Canoeing was my thing. Red Indian. Rowing boat was cowboy. ‘I’m the man,’ I said and laughed. ‘That’ right,’ she said and looked at me with narrow, almost dreamy eyes” (210). One could, I suppose, argue that the seeds are there: the assumptions, the role-playing, the abbreviated communication. But if that is true, then, again, many of us have been or are there. Relationships rely as much on ellipsis and miscommunication as they do on directness. The final words of that chapter come from the narrator on the brink of divorce, but also, I believe, from the present-day narrator. “The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this could be ground into dust” (213).

Perhaps as I get older, I seek out and appreciate novels that artfully carry complicated views of how humans really are in the world. I am interested in reading and connecting with something I recognize as truth, while still being taken outside my own real life. It’s a tall order, but when it happens, it’s thrilling.

 

 

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