Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Review: Per Petterson's "To Siberia"

In 2007 Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviewed Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses.

Here Taras reviews Petterson's To Siberia:
If you've sailed the Baltic you know that this northern sea, especially in winter, can be as violent as the Nordic nations surrounding them appear to be placid. The personal tragedy that Per Petterson suffered and narrated in his novel In the Wake (published in Norway in 2000) is a testimonial to the treachery of the Baltic, and its grim harvest makes reading any of his other seafaring stories unavoidably suspenseful. Suspense is not a word you might associate with this emerging major literary voice. The characters peopling Petterson's novels meet the tumultuous events in their otherwise unremarkable lives with extraordinary stoicism.

Published in Norway in 1996 and only this year in the U.S., To Siberia is a novel about Scandinavia. It follows the fjord hopping of a girl who grew up in the sparse windswept lands of northernmost Jutland, in a tiny town on the coast somewhere not far from Skagen. Dreaming of escape from the boredom of a small Danish harbor town to the expansiveness of Siberia, she only gets as far as the other side of the Baltic--the Oslo fjords, Gothenburg, and for a brief time even across to Stockholm, on the far coast of Sweden.

Wherever she travels the young girl is immediately recognized as Danish. "You're not even Norwegian," a librarian snarls at her (p. 174). In Petterson's northern cosmology, the subtle markings of identity that differentiate Nordic communities are as solid and towering as the Norway spruce. Even Christian, king of Denmark, who makes a cameo appearance insisting on being connected to his wife, assails the protagonist, temping as a switchboard operator, for her identity: "I can hear you are from North Jutland. I have had a lot of unpleasant experiences of North Jutlanders, I can tell you" (p. 184).

As in Petterson's acclaimed Out Stealing Horses (published in Norwegian in 2003, seven years after this novel but reaching the American reader a couple of years ahead of To Siberia), the presence of a spirited horse, named Lucifer no less, overshadows the phlegmatic rural residents of the vicinity, while an attentive border collie once again proves to be a lonely man's most giving companion. As in that novel, too, the topic of resistance to German occupation in World War II is a catalyst in the narrative of To Siberia. Unlike the Norwegians, the Danes did not do themselves proud in marshaling resistance to the German invasion. To be sure, their chilly but nonconfrontational approach to Nazi forces stationed in their country helped give them the opportunity to become "a light in the darkness," saving nearly all of their Jewish population, generally by transporting them across the Baltic to neutral Sweden from innumerable ports on Denmark's many islands.

In August 1943 the Danish government's limited cooperation with the occupiers broke down and Germany was forced to declare martial law in the country. This novel introduces the reader to a handful of tenacious resistance fighters in north Jutland among whom is Jesper, the older brother of the protagonist who she has grown up adoring. Still in their teens, they are forced into an impromptu parting and a last embrace on a dark Danish beach—the Germans are closing in on Jesper and his only hope of escape is under cover of night on a boat to the west coast of Sweden. In his haste he forgets to take with him a photograph of "Sistermine"--his affectionate nickname for his younger sister. Their subsequent odysseys taking them further and further apart have nothing romantic about them, making the siblings' separation especially poignant.

Petterson generally welcomes comparisons to an earlier Norwegian writer who won the 1920 Nobel Prize in literature, Knut Hamsun. Hamsun had for a time sympathized with the Nazis, and it is as if Petterson wishes to atone for this disgrace by writing like Hamsun but from a Nordic patriotic perspective. In any case the comparisons between the two seem forced. For one thing, one finds much more emotional drama in Petterson's works, as understated as it may be. His world also appears more "cosmopolitan" than Hamsun's, encompassing much of Scandinavia rather than just the farmlands and woodlands of Norway. Of course, Petterson has yet to write a magisterial work like Growth of the Soil or Hunger. What both authors share is a writing style that is austere and minimalist, with plot lines centered on interior experience rather than externally-driven events.

Petterson's stories are magical for being so surprisingly straightforward. They are deeply satisfying. We can therefore look forward with much anticipation to English translations of two other of his most recent novels which have appeared in Norway.
Learn more about the novel at the Graywolf Press website.

Ray Taras, professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program, is the author of the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses
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

--Marshal Zeringue