Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, trs Anne Born

Handstands in the rain with my father
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The Independent Culture

Saying, "There's something I want to show you," Jon led him to a goldfinch's nest: "I had seen many nests, but never such a tiny one, so light, so perfectly formed of moss and feathers." To Trond's horrified disbelief, Jon proceeded to smash every egg and to crush the little nest to powder, while delivering inhuman sounds from a face like a "chalk-white mask".

This vandalism turned out to be less an excursion into gratuitous evil than a deliberate enactment of the destructiveness inherent in life, counterbalancing a dreadful familial experience of Jon's own, as yet unknown to Trond. Unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other throughout this intricately worked novel. Back in 1999 Trond's recollections make him appreciate who his new neighbour is: this fellow-hermit is Lars, the younger brother of his vanished former leader in boyish daredevilry.

Nor was Jon's revelation of the human capacity for both grief and wanton cruelty all that summer 1948 brought Trond. It taught him about Norwegian sufferings that, as a younger boy, he'd simply taken for granted, during the German occupation over only three years before. And it also taught him lessons about his own father - a man he looked up to and urgently loved - and through him about adult sexuality which often lays such insupportable burdens. As readers learn early in Trond's reconstructions, this summer contained his last sightings of his two heroes, Jon and Dad, both embodiments of malehood. And the psychic desolation caused by the second loss was the greater for its intimate connection with the first.

Two of Per Petterson's novels have already been published to acclaim in Britain, To Siberia and In the Wake. Both derive from an appalling loss of his own (in middle age, when already an established writer), of parents and siblings in a ferry-fire. The second book delineates with a powerful delicacy the struggle to bear the unbearable. Out Stealing Horses shares with its predecessors their paradoxical meeting-up of highly articulate yet limpid prose and conscious artistry (the construction is of the Chinese-box kind) with intractable-seeming material, any confrontation with which partakes of the atavistic.

The very title in the original - Ut og stjæle hester - surprised Norwegian readers with the rural rawness of the wording, a phrase, we will learn, with resonance from the war-time Resistance. Yet the backwoodsman Trond who surveys the physical challenges and pains of that distant July - and kinaesthetically evokes them - is, like his creator, a sophisticated man who reaches out to Dickens and Jean Rhys for parallels.

It would be reductive, and wholly against Petterson's intentions, to say that Trond spiritually profits from the tragic happenings of 1948 and from their remembrance. Or that they have indelibly scarred him. Rather he learned earlier than many that living is inextricable from experiencing fear, agony, heartbreak, and that, even after these, one can, amazingly, go on. Joys occur even if parenthesised by pain. Petterson's description of Trond and his father baring themselves to the falling rain, even doing handstands together in it, exhilarates, and with what quiet tenderness he recounts the boy and his mother out for the day over the border in Karlstad, two diffident Norwegians in a smart Swedish town. And even in a present uncomfortably close to old age Trond enjoys the unexpected visit of his good-hearted daughter.

Anne Born's sensitive translation does justice to an impressive novel of rare and exemplary moral courage, and commendably makes convincing the confrontations of different individuals, different milieux.

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