Saturday, February 5, 2011

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson

Out Stealing Horses is a book in which nearly everything seems to happen twice. In the present (fall and early winter 1999), the protagonist Trond Sander is living in a remote cabin in rural Norway, where he has retreated after the deaths of his wife and sister. In 1948, a period that Trond spends a great deal of time remembering, Trond and his father were spending the summer in another remote cabin in rural Norway. The summer of 1948 was significant for Trond for numerous reasons. He learned from a man living near the cabin why his father had been absent so much during the war years--he was a courier for the Resistance. He discovered that his father was having an affair with his friend Jon's mother, who awakens 15-year-old Trond's own sexual longings. (Trond and his father do not discuss either of these discoveries.) He loses Jon, when Jon is sent away after leaving his loaded rifle on the table where his younger brother Lars could pick it up and accidentally shoot his twin Odd (mirroring the war-time killing of one of the twin brothers of Trond's mother). By the end of the summer, Trond has also lost his father, who does not rejoin the family in Oslo and is never heard from again.

Trond's abandonment by his father clearly had an enormous effect on him, but it was still shocking to learn well into the book that Trond has children that he has also abandoned--much later in life, but an abandonment nonetheless. He moved to the country without telling his daughters--when one of them tracks him down eight months later, she has had to call officials in communities within an 80-mile radius to find him.

Even the title makes two appearances in the story--on the last day they spend together, Jon wakes Trond by saying, "Let's go out stealing horses"; in fact, they merely steal rides on the neighbor's horses. But it turns out that the same phrase was a code among members of the resistance in the area.

The writing is lovely. I don't know whether Petterson is simply a wonderful translatable author (an interview I read said he had done a lot of rewriting during the translation process, which is quite interesting and something I'd like to know more about), Anne Born is a marvelous translator, or both, but the result is readable, evocative prose.

I'm still grappling with Trond's story--Petterson does have me thinking about to what extent we repeat our parents' lives and whether we can, as Trond says at the end of the book, "decide for ourselves when it will hurt." I'm eager to hear what others in Novel Conversations have to say about the book.

Favorite passages:
Maybe in those days I lacked a certain type of imagination, and possibly I still do, but what I saw happening on the other side of the river came upon me so unexpectedly that I sat there staring, with my mouth open, not cold, not hot, not even lukewarm, but with my head almost bursting with emptiness, and if anyone had caught sight of me just then, they may well have thought I had run away from a home for backward children.

. . . I closed my eyes and lifted my face to the sky, and there was nothing coming down that I could feel. Only cool air on my skin and the scent of resin and timber, and the scent of earth, and a bird whose name I did not know hopping around in a thicket rustling and crackling and sending out a steady stream of thin piping sounds from the dense foliage a few paces from my foot. It was a strange, lonely sound out there in the night, but I did not know whether it was the bird I thought was lonely or if it was me.

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