Norwegian author wins 'Independent' prize

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The Independent Culture

This year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize has been won by the Norwegian writer Per Petterson for his novel Out Stealing Horses. Petterson, who shares the £10,000 award with his translator Anne Born, received Britain's most valuable annual award for fiction in translation at a ceremony at the National Portrait Gallery last night.

The novelist Paul Bailey, a member of the prize jury, said that Out Stealing Horses had "delighted and captivated the judging panel, who were unanimous in their praise". He also saluted Anne Born, one of Britain's most experienced and eminent translators from Scandinavian languages, for "a loving translation" of "a lovely book".

Born in 1952, and now one of Norway's leading literary lights, Petterson has already taken the critics' and booksellers' prizes at home for this, his fifth novel. It has sold 140,000 copies in Norway, a country with a population of 4.5 million. Last autumn, the writer who has been called " Norwegian literature's knight of masculine sensitivity" read from Out Stealing Horses in London during a royal visit by Queen Sonja to mark the centenary of Norway's independence from Sweden.

Through the memories of a lonely widower in his forest home near the Swedish frontier, the novel recreates the summer of 1948, when the 15-year-old Trond makes life-changing discoveries about his parents, his friends and himself that will shape his future life. The coming-of-age story, rich with incidents and revelations that bring to light family tragedy, hidden passions and the traumas of the German occupation of Norway, unfolds one brief but blazing summer against the brilliantly rendered landscape of the Norwegian woods.

Trond, a man who wants to believe that "we shape our lives ourselves", finds that the recovered past shakes his understanding of the endless tension between free will and fate.

Excavating for the truth behind his adored father's sudden desertion, he captures those irreversible moments when "life had shifted its weight from one point to another, from one leg to another, like a silent giant in the vast shadows against the ridge".

Out Stealing Horses edged ahead of powerful competition from world-ranking authors to snatch this year's award. The judges (Paul Bailey, Margaret Busby, Maureen Freely, Kate Griffin and Boyd Tonkin) concurred in naming as the runner-up Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz, in Tim Wilkinson's translation for Harvill - the autobiographical novel of a teenager's survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps that secured the 2002 Nobel Prize for its Hungarian author. The other shortlisted contenders included The Door by Magda Szabó (translated by Len Rix), Mercedes-Benz by Pawel Huelle (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun (translated by Linda Coverdale), and The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (translated by Michael Henry Heim).

Born in Oslo but now living in a rural village, Petterson worked as a labourer and bookseller before striking out on his own as writer of fiction; he made his debut with short-story collection in 1987. He has said that when he discovered the work of the American writer Raymond Carver in the 1980s, "it was like coming home".

His previous novels include To Siberia and In the Wake, which reached the long-list for the Independent prize. With Out Stealing Horses, he also acknowledges a debt to the tough-minded lyricism of Pan by Norway's pre-war Nobel laureate, Knut Hamsun. In his own work a compassionate, moving but clear-eyed view of family relationships, and a remarkable gift for atmosphere and setting, combine to create subtle, unshowy stories that gradually build into scenes of overwhelming emotional power.

Paul Bailey described Out Stealing Horses as "poetic in the truest sense of that overused word", and as a novel that "carries a devastating punch in its later pages". British reviewers, who greeted Anne Born's translation with a chorus of delight, agreed. For The Sunday Telegraph, "This stunning novel will tell you more about the Norwegian countryside and psyche than the most enthusiastically well-informed guidebook ".

To the Daily Express, Petterson "captures the essence of a man's vast existence with a clean-lined freshness that hits you like a burst of winter air - surprising and breathtaking".

In The Guardian, the novel was deemed "a minor masterpiece of death and delusion". The Independent on Sunday celebrated "an impressive novel of rare and exemplary moral courage", and The Independent found it "a true gem, compact yet radiant".

Extract from 'Out Stealing Horses' by Per Petterson

"Those days were the last days. When I sit here now, in the kitchen of the old house I have planned to make into a liveable place in the years left to me, and my daughter has gone after a surprising visit and taken with her her voice and her cigarettes and the orange lights from her car down the road, and I look back to that time, I see how each movement through the landscape took colour from what came afterwards and cannot be separated from it.

And when someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way for most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not any more.

If I just concentrate I can walk into memory's store and find the right shelf with the right film and disappear into it and still feel in my body that ride through the forest with my father; high above the river along the ridge and then down on the other side, across the border into Sweden and far intowasendital, a foreign country, at least for me. I can lean back and sit by the bonfire under the overhanging cliff as I was that night when I woke up a second time and saw my father lying with his eyes open, staring up into the rock above him; quite still with his hands under his head and a red light from the embers on his forehead and stubbly cheek, and although I should have liked to I was not awake long enough to see if he actually did close his eyes before the morning came.

Nevertheless he was up long before me and had watered the horses and groomed them both, and was keen to get going; he moved around tensely, but there was no sharpness in his voice that I could hear. Then we packed up and saddled the horses before the dreams had left my mind and were on our way before I could think anything part from very simple thoughts."

The shortlist

WINNER:

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson (translated by Anne Born)

RUNNER-UP:

Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz (translated by Tim Wilkinson)

ALSO SHORTLISTED:

The Door by Magda Szabó; Mercedes-Benz by Pawel Huelle; This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun; The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic.

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