Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Review: Per Petterson's "Out Stealing Horses"

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews the latest novel by Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses:
Despite state-sponsored rhetoric in the Western world over the last several decades exhorting us to celebrate diversity, why is it we are still irresistibly attracted to narratives that essentialize national identity? Why is it that the African novels we prize are those that describe killing and corruption, the Romanian films we acclaim are those that deal with the oppression of the Ceauşescu years, the Quebec folk music we value is that which celebrates the traditional French-Canadian attachments to faith, land, and large families?

To be sure, today we do indulge multiculturalizing paeans, too. There may be no richer a set of examples than the subgenre made up of the cinematic and literary texts of Indian women living in the West: Gurinder Chadha's Mississippi Masala and Bend it like Beckham, Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. As with l'Auberge espagnole, however, we often come away with a sense that the wholesomeness of multiple identities is too good to be true, that harmonious encounters between races and ethnicities are contrived.

In England, the battle for the minds of the reader, waged by the essentializers and the multiculturalists, seems evenly poised. On the one hand there are the values and feel-good sentiments advanced by Monica Ali. On the other, there are the core English values and churlish sentiments championed by Martin Amis. Each has a hard core constituency supporting it.

In Out Stealing Horses, Norwegian novelist Petterson has given us the quintessential Norwegian novel -- and we have awarded it lucrative international prizes. All of Norway's tropes are here: vast forest land, meandering swift-flowing rivers, wood-heated cabins, impassable snow-covered roads, Sweden just beyond the horizon. There is logging, lumberjacks, love affairs of the desultory kind found in Knut Hamsun. And could we have a postwar Norwegian novel without at least oblique references to wartime occupation and resistance? The taciturn Trond, the novel's protagonist, can easily be taken for the lead Norwegian character in Kitchen Stories.

Yet we love this Norwegian parable as we do Norwegian wood. It relates a Norway pur et dur, before the non-white man came. It indulges our fantasies about a long ago past where the ordeal of migration involved crossing a river and climbing a hill to get into a neighboring country where money was waiting for collection in a bank account. This mythic past does not know the phenomena of boat people, stowaways on jet planes or the Eurostar, migrant workers who lose all their identity papers the moment they have reached their preferred country of employment. In Out Stealing Horses, even Oslo is sanitized and consists of an orderly train station, as far removed from Howrah in Calcutta as it is possible to be.

This novel has allowed essentializers to come out of the closet where they have been taking refuge since the multicultural imperative was imposed somewhere in the Sixties or Seventies. Our guilty pleasures, including nostalgia for the past -- a past markedly different from the differences we are told to extol today -- need not mark us out as reactionaries but, instead perhaps, as unrealistic romantics. Petterson is the great enabler in this regard.

There is more to the success of his novel than the depiction of appealing stereotypes and autotypes. Its intricate structure skillfully blends stories of retirement in affluent Norway with stories of resistance in wartorn Norway. Its stark insidious minimalism takes a page straight out of Hamsun's works. Paradoxically, it lays the basis for establishing a universalist discursive practice that Zadie Smith's White Teeth, with its Tower of Babel polyphony, demonstrated is so elusive. We get to know Trond intimately as his character is developed at a measured pace and his narrative voice is quiet but revealing. In fact, the personality of the neighbor's dog becomes as vivid -- perhaps even more so -- as those of most other characters, and certainly of the few women in the book.

But that is the author's intent all along: to set out how a reclusive older man living in the bleak Nordic backwoods manages his day-to-day affairs and keeps the traumas of his past at bay.

Essentializers will hope that Petersson's next novel also exploits his comparative advantage and does not instead turn to a depiction of the mundane life of, say, a Portuguese village. --Ray Taras
Learn more about the novel and read an excerpt at the Graywolf Press website.

Ray Taras, professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years, is the author of a forthcoming book on xenophobias in old and new Europe.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Taras has also reviewed nonfiction on the blog:
Andreï Makine, Cette France qu’on oublie d’aimer
Andrei S. Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America

--Marshal Zeringue