Sunday, August 05, 2007

Out Stealing Horses

Not much happens (by way of plot, that is) in Per Petterson's multiple award-winning fourth novel, Out Stealing Horses, except the memory of a long-ago summer. Its protagonist, Trond, is a man who has moved into a house near the forest after the death of his wife and who considers himself fortunate for having finally discovered a place of solitude, even though he fears becoming "a shipwrecked man without an anchor in the world except in his own liquid thoughts where time has lost its sequence".

But Trond's solitary bliss is disturbed by the intrusion of a neighbor on a day when the latter is looking for his lost dog. This neighbor, it so happens, has a certain connection with Trond's boyhood, and the chance meeting brings forth a cascade of emotions and feelings in Trond.

As it turns out, the neighbor, Lars, is the younger brother of Jon, Trond's quicksilver pal during a summer in 1948 when Trond and his father went up to live in a cabin in eastern Norway. The title is taken from an offer that Jon makes Trond on the fateful July day when their lives intersect in an unknowable miasma of fate and circumstance.

A tragedy befalls Jon's family which resonates with the characters' lives for long afterwards. However, the suddenness of adversity is not the only lesson the 15-year-old Trond learns. He discovers a far more pernicious truth about his father.

Per Petterson writes with sympathy and an eye for detail. The outback of Trond's old-age stay is a Norway that sucks the reader in with its cinematic beauty. At times, the daily motions of Trond's life of reminiscence do get tedious but Petterson is, more often than not, successful in amalgamating these with the delicate weight of his text.

But other than that, Out Stealing Horses hurt me deeply for a different reason. I don't intend to sound sexist even though I may, but there is something altogether troubling about an old man speaking to the reader of his life's lost chances.

This is not to say that a woman narrator would not have won my empathy, but the sight of a man juggling domestic life with a typical masculine ineptitude at running it; looking back on frayed, intense memories; and forcing himself to believe his best intentions about mortality, does break the heart in unexpected ways.

A quiet, engrossing work uplifted by rigorous translation, Out Stealing Horses deserves every accolade coming its way.

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This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Update: Read Frank Wilson's review from Sunday's Inquirer here.