February 14th, 2011
Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time remains a novel about endings throughout its elegant telling of Arvid’s final days with his mother, who is dying of stomach cancer. Yet, it’s also a novel of disillusion, of abandon and of deep discontent. At 37, Arvid’s on the cusp of being divorced, and has never truly quite found his place in the world — if my mother were still alive, she would tell me this is a typical novel of someone suffering from “middle child syndrome.” Something she referenced quite often, in jest, when referring to her place in her own family.
Unable to face the fact that his wife, partner, of the last 15 years no longer wants or needs him, Arvid reverts into childish behaviour, following his mother to their summer cabin in Jutland after discovering she’s dying. Interspersed with the awkward and complex time he spends with his mother away from their father and the life they had both known for almost 40 years in Oslo, Arvid’s erratic actions are explored in context of his earlier life — when he was an ardent communist, a factory worker, a member of the peuple — and how his convictions, as well as his strong beliefs, are also changing in lieu of both his age and where he is in his life. There’s a lovely passage near the end of the novel that explains, perhaps, in part, his reluctance to let go of his marriage, of his beliefs, of his relationship with his mother despite the fact that each of these things are willfully being taken away from him:
…but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant that 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 for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.
In a way, Petterson’s novel explores the death of communism itself through this character — in his own disillusionment with the fact that it didn’t succeed in Russia, that the wall came down in them middle of the action, and that Arvid has worked for many years, not as a proletariat, but in a lovely bookstore — something that has made him extremely happy. Yet, he can’t let his party platform go, he feels guilt over his own disillusionment with the politics, with his own failure to move forward beyond his university beliefs.
His complex relationship with his mother also underlines all of his actions. When he tells her he won’t be going back to the university because he wants to become a full-time communist, she slaps him — a gesture of frustration over his childish ways, of his inability to fully command his life in an adult way, of never being quite “old enough” but always being “too old” in her eyes.
This rich, complex relationship, as are many situations between mothers and sons, underlines everything that Arvid does in life. He can’t seem to get her attention in the same way as his other three brothers, one of whom died tragically. She tells her best friend, Hansen, that he’s not entirely a grown up, and this is tragically reflected in his actions towards the end of the novel when it becomes glaringly apparent that she won’t live much longer. And still, Arvid’s almost selfish ways impinge upon the way his mother chooses to live out the end of her life — it’s his divorce, his troubles, his lack of understanding why his world falls apart around him, that is the most tragic aspect of the novel.
Yet, Arvid’s unhappiness, his inability to truly move beyond the earlier parts of his life that have consistently defined him, even loosely, remain grounded in a very real, very cognizant sense of place within the novel. Petterson dutifully explains Arvid’s routes, where he walks, how he drives, the churning of the sea as he crosses the passage to his mother’s summer home. All of the very real places one goes in one’s life — the train to work, the roads the flat sits above, the myriad of things that happens on the way somewhere (a man having a fit, a neighbour on a bicycle). To force the reader to realize, I think, in a way, that even if Arvid can’t come to terms with his life, like the passage above illustrates, his life simply goes on anyway, even if your wife doesn’t love you anymore, even if your mother is dying, even if the wall comes down.
Overall, it’s a brilliant novel, it sort of reminded me of Mothers and Sons, even though those were short stories, in the exploration of the relationship — but it’s more a book about a mid-life crisis, not your typical “bucket list” bullsh*t, but a very real crisis of consciousness when everything that you once stood for, that you felt worth saving, that you felt worth protecting, has changed and you haven’t. And you simply can’t understand why the you that was the same last week isn’t quite right for this one.
It certainly makes you think.
READING CHALLENGES: I already have a Norwegian entry for 52 Books, and I didn’t even take this off the shelf, so that’s zip for the reading challenges. But yay! to #15, I guess?