Tuesday, September 11, 2007

#60 - Out Stealing Horses

Norwegian writer Per Petterson's outstanding work of fiction, Out Stealing Horses, had me enthralled from beginning to end. Having won this year's most monied international award, the IMPAC Dublin, the novel tells the story of a man called Trond who approaches his old age with one goal in mind: to learn to be alone. And it is in this journey of self-discovery, this coming to terms with spending time completely cut off, in a way, from the society of one's life, that the story unfolds.

Returning to the county where his happiest memories as a boy happened, Trond slowly lets the reader in on the real reason he decides to retire there (without a phone, without a television, without an inside, working bathroom): he needs to truly understand and come to terms with his relationship with his father. The book meanders as slowly as a seasonal change from Trond's current situation as a 67-year-old man to the summer he spent at a similar cabin with his father as an adolescent. That summer, marked both by tragedy (an awful accident at the neighbour's that involved his only friend Jon) and utter happiness, ends up, in retrospect, the moment in time that defined him. To give away more of the plot would not necessarily ruin the novel, but I enjoyed the story as it unraveled so much that I am hesitant to say anything further should I spoil the reading experience for someone else.

The prose, long lavish sentences that flow seemingly endlessly from start to finish, sometimes over half a page, reflects the main character's voice so utterly that I also had to wonder how different it would have been to read the novel it its native Norwegian. Not that the translator, Anne Born, did a terrible job, just that Petterson's writing is so lyrical that it must simply read like poetry in his native tongue. For the most part, this is an interior story, with much of the action taking place in Trond's mind, his memory. But there's an active core too: the acrid, rich smell of the horses they "steal," the feeling of the hot sun during his glorious summer, the crunch of the snow fall, it all adds up to an author that has an almost unbearable talent for writing landscape and situation.

For the first time in a long while, I felt like I truly experienced life in the "host" country of my reading travels. The Norway he describes, both in the late 1940s, during the war, and in his modern time, remains vivid all throughout the book, even if the setting (the county where each cabin sits) itself remains unchanged throughout. And for a person who herself grew up at a cottage, understanding the connection to a place that feels like home, means that there's an added level of emotional involvement for me. Bloody brilliant, there are precious little other words to describe it, well-deserved win, in my opinion.

I know that I've only read two of the other nominees (Slow Man and No Country for Old Men [humm, quite a pattern there actually, as each have protagonists coming to terms in different respects with the lives they've chosen to lead]), but in terms of my Around the World in 52 Books challenge, I'm so glad this book won so I had the chance to read it. I doubt I would have picked it up otherwise if it weren't for the short blurb in a Publisher's Weekly newsletter. Funny, now I can't imagine a life where I haven't read this novel.
Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill iwth physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.
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 the 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. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: Setting the book down on a messy pile of papers while I cleared off enough desk space to finish up my freelance assignment. The cover's beautiful, isn't it?


Tai said...

I'm really glad you commented over at my blog, 'cus otherwise I would have never found you!
I'm really enjoying your reviews, and am delighted to have another enthusiastic reader to turn to for suggestions.

hip_ragdoll said...

Tai, well, I'd have to say that's my pleasure! Thanks for commenting.

bstewart said...

I don't know whether I should apologize or not, but you've been tagged: http://bstewart23.com/blog/2007/09/13/eight-is-more-than-enough/

Q said...

I bought it prior to the announcement of the prize after reading Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times declare it the best book on the list. It was meant to be my summer book , I’d read it in the phoenix park in the evenings. Then the weather turned and we had the wettest summer in Dublin. On record. Ever. And I forgot I had it. So yay! I’m going to start reading it this weekend.