Sept/Oct/Nov 2008

VILLAGE PEOPLE

John Freeman


How boring does your hometown have to be for Siberia to tickle wanderlust? The narrator of To Siberia, a melancholy novel by Per Petterson, is an interesting test case. Growing up in a Danish village in the ’30s, she and her brother retreat from their grandfather’s drunken binges and their father’s palpable aura of failure into atlases and histories, where they see nothing but escape hatches. Jesper, the unnamed narrator’s daring older brother, dreams of Morocco. His sister, however, sets her sights on Siberia: “I wanted open skies . . . where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances.” The two make a blood pact over these plans, not quite realizing they’ve sealed a promise to leave each other, as well.

Published in Norway in 1996, To Siberia is Petterson’s third novel to arrive on these shores, following the wildly successful Out Stealing Horses, which won the impac prize in 2007, and In the Wake, which appeared in ’06. All three books revolve around feelings of regret and longing, continually returning to the narrators’ complicated relationships to the past. Like characters in the novels of Knut Hamsun—whom he has acknowledged as a key influence—Petterson’s heroes and heroines wander to high ground, where they are alone and unknown. Getting away from it all sharpens memory’s torment; it also forces them to stitch their lives into stories.

Although To Siberia has these familiar elements, Petterson gives his heroine a voice of her own. She is proud and knowing, yet determined to transform herself from a village provincial into something more glamorous. “They have caps made of wolfskin and big jackets and fur-lined boots,” she says of Siberians, slipping into the present tense. She will be a hit on the train. “[People] will tell me what their lives are like and what their thoughts are and ask me why I have come all the long way from Denmark. Then I will answer them: ‘I have read about you in a book.’ And then we’ll drink hot tea from the samovar and be quiet together just looking.”

Petterson deftly calibrates his narrator’s Holly Golightly na´vetÚ, using it to bracket the Nazi invasion of April 9, 1940, within the penumbra of a young woman’s self-regard. When she tells Jesper she has heard there are prison camps in Siberia, he quips, “Nazi propaganda,” and her dream remains intact. The German soldiers she sees are quiet and ineffectual, blubbering when they have to be sent off to Norway. Even though Denmark is occupied (the nation fell to Germany in just two hours; most of its Jews escaped), the war is far away—its cruelties and brutalities barely even rumors.

What happens to the narrator’s family forms a far more powerful impetus for her to leave. Alienation is common among her people. Her father forfeited his farm to work as a janitor and skilled carpenter. Money is tight, but he cannot bring himself to charge more for the miraculous work he does on neighbors’ furniture. His own father’s drunken jaunts into town by horse and buggy humiliate him, but not quite as much as they mortify the old man. The grandfather hangs himself with a note in his pocket: “I cannot go on any longer.”

The narrator deals with this traumaand others, like the arrival of German troops—by sticking ever closer to Jesper, with whom she already had a close, protective relationship. He repeatedly falls prey to his own excesses, tumbling into wells, conking his head on coastline rocks, and eventually flinging himself into the Danish Resistance. He grows up into a handsome lad, and his sister’s love assumes the tension of infatuation. She loves him not only for what he represents but also for what he proves she can become.

To Siberia is an odd coming-of-age story. The pinch of its narrator’s near penury and family psychodrama has a jagged authenticity, but the descriptions of the town and her routines there are so elegantly cast, it’s not entirely clear whether the narrator, who looks back on her youth from the vantage of age sixty, is aware of her own nostalgia. Descriptions of her village slip easily into loping, Hemingwayesque sentences tinged with provincial pride: “We had earthworks going back for two hundred years, and a shipyard with more than a hundred workers and a lunch-break siren that could be heard all over the town at noon. We had a harbour for fishing boats where the throbbing of the trawlers’ motors never stopped, and boats came in from the capital, from Sweden and from Norway.”

As he did in Out Stealing Horses, Petterson writes wonderfully about animals and the place they once had in this world: When the narrator and her brother sneak into the barn at night and she crawls atop a sleeping cow, its body heat lulls her to sleep. After the grandfather’s suicide, his horse bolts into the forest, never to be seen again. But it does appear in the narrator’s dreams, as if to beckon her away. She tacks a picture of the beast above her bed as if it were a reminder of her own impetuous nature.

Petterson’s heroine does makes her break and begins wandering, and the story drifts with her as she becomes an adult. This journey is described in a series of somewhat static set pieces that can be weirdly moving; her narcissism makes her unpredictable, and she zigzags into and out of a lot of dubious beds. Unlike the anguished, tormented hero of Out Stealing Horses, late in life this protagonist is still a work in progress. We never learn why the intervening forty years are omitted from this tale; we just know that the past has replaced Siberia as her paradise. Gloomily, soberly, Petterson paints her life with a dark, cold luster.

John Freeman is finishing a book for Scribner on the tyranny of e-mail.

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