By Per Petterson
…The whole thing is wonderful in its relative simplicity. Trond’s recounting of his childhood summer involves mention of Nazis, manslaughter, adultery and betrayal, and yet these dramatic events are like background music…
It must be said that Norway can seem a little overlooked on the world stage, although probably for very commendable reasons. Things just seem to work pretty well in Scandinavia: their politicians aren’t pissing everybody off; they don’t throw their weight around militarily; and, from my (likely narrow) British perspective, they appear to just get on with things, whether that be heavy snow or economic hiccups. At the end of the day, I think we can all agree that when you switch on BBC World News, Norway probably won’t be headlining.
For this reason, I suspect others will be in the same boat in picking up Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses and not knowing quite what to expect. As it happens, both the setting (the middle of Norwegian nowhere) and its narrative voice (poetic, yet almost alarmingly grounded) were oddly foreign and thoroughly gripping.
It is a novel with two faces; the story begins with the introduction of our protagonist, Trond Sanders, a 67-year-old retiree who has recently embarked upon a new life alone in the countryside. Having bought a ramshackle, lake-side cottage that requires a huge amount of work, he plans on spending the rest of his days in solitude, filling his days with DIY and long walks with his dog. These intentions are ripped asunder, however, when Trond finally comes across his one neighbour in the tranquil wilderness, who happens to be a man who he remembers meeting as a boy. This recognition catapults Trond into reminiscing about the circumstances around which he met the neighbour, embarking on a parallel storyline where we read from the perspective of his 15-year-old self as he recounts what was possibly the most memorable and harrowing summer of his life.
The whole thing is wonderful in its relative simplicity. Trond’s recounting of his childhood summer involves mention of Nazis, manslaughter, adultery and betrayal, and yet these dramatic events are like background music. Trond’s older self confesses early on in the book that after that summer he never again saw his father. Out Stealing Horses therefore becomes more a study of Trond’s relationship with his father, a relationship which by all accounts seems to be one of affection, respect and harmony, but which we as readers are also painfully aware is doomed to fail. This knowledge laces events with a certain tension and we question everything that Trond and his father do that summer, whether it be weeding, logging, horse riding or dancing naked in the rain.
For all of these events, Petterson writes wonderfully, evoking real beauty in the country landscape, and this is a real plus of the book. It’s difficult to write in detail about nature without a narrative dragging a little, but this is something that Petterson has no issue with. Indeed, the scenery fits perfectly with the pace of the novel, which flows slowly but surely. Nonetheless, the knowledge that things will not turn out well lurks beneath the description of every spruce tree or valley view; it is a wonderful work in languid anticipation.
Trond himself is also a fabulously fresh character. Completely unfazed by the prospect of living alone, 67-year-old Trond misses his late sister and wife, but states quite surely that he has been lucky in life and seems to relish the idea of a fresh start in the sticks. This stoicism is offset by occasional emotional slips, such as when his daughter visits and he’s suddenly gripped by the terror that she may never visit again. Ultimately, however, Trond remains a case study in quiet, level-headed optimism.
(Whether this is something we can consider a lesson in Scandinavian culture, I can’t be sure- I’ll seek out another couple of Norwegian authors, and perhaps a Swede or two, and get back to you.)
All in all, this book was fascinating. Petterson’s writing style is really interesting; he uses long, positively rambling sentences that still manage to achieve a certain elegance. He writes about the Norwegian countryside both concisely and beautifully, fixating on details that only a great writer with a poetic outlook would think to mention. The story of his protagonist, Trond, is immensely readable and we grow fonder and fonder of this quiet character whose life story remains largely untold, with the exception of the summer that perhaps made him the man he now is.
I would love by way of conclusion to say something like “Per Petterson, in writing such a striking novel, has put Norway on the map”, but in all honesty this isn’t really the case. This novel leaves me with an impression of Norway that mostly consists of rivers, woods, cabins and snow, which isn’t altogether different from what I already had in mind. In fact, the stoic lifestyle and attitude of Petterson’s protagonist only serves to reinforce the stereotype for me that Scandinavians just deal with shit without causing a massive fuss. What I CAN say, however, is that Out Stealing Horses has put the author Per Petterson on the map, and quite deservedly. I can only hope that more works of such quality continued to be translated for the rest of us to enjoy.