Steve's Reviews > I Curse the River of Time

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson
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's review
Jun 16, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: novels, translations
Read from June 11 to 15, 2010

I Curse The River Of Time has a lot in common with Per Petterson's other novels: a narrator fairly unmoored and adrift, digging through memories to make sense of how the past has arrived at the present. This time, that back-and-forth between past and present isn't limited to a specific series of memories, but rather a number of memories from various times in the narrator's life, which makes for a somewhat jumpier flow between scenes but makes the character's mental chaos more tangible (it's most similar to In The Wake, in that sense).

Protagonist Arvid has hitched himself to failures in both his political and personal lives, and at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 finds himself questioning all the choices that delivered him where he is -- almost divorced, losing his mother, caught between social classes, a committed if ineffective Communist when it no longer matters, and not quite an adult at 37 (most of which is clear in the opening pages, so I shouldn't be spoiling anything there). He's discovering, if not quite accepting, that there's a point in life when it's no longer possible to become a different version of yourself than the one you already are, which resonates with the issues of working class politics and "escape" through literature and learning that are at the core of Arvid's relationships and tenuous identity. The ease with which Petterson weaves together the political and personal lets a story full of "big ideas" avoid being didactic or oppressive, but I think that's also helped by the fact that as much as Arvid defines himself by his Party affiliation, most of his active Communism happens in the margins. As does much of his life, because he seems to be perpetually arriving at the wrong time, insisting on going where he's not wanted, and proving his own existence by making others confirm it when there's no way to ignore him. Who Arvid _thinks_ he is, or _wants_ himself to be, then, isn't really who he is to anyone else -- and it's those moments when we see Arvid as others might that he really becomes complex as a character.

Unlike Petterson's other narrators, though, who are sympathetic in their flaws and mistakes, Arvid seems a bit static and even a little pathetic: he's got the same problems in the present he had in the past, and doesn't seem particularly troubled by that as he still looks for someone else (his mother, mostly) to fix things for him. All he really seems to want is for nothing to change, whether it's the stasis of social class or the preservation of his marriage or avoiding the mortality of his mother. He has a habit of closing his eyes, childlike, to avoid the unpleasant, and daydreams of falling into blackholes to avoid what he'd rather not face. In fact, Arvid's mother was the more interesting character -- she's the center of his universe, and the center of the novel, too, because unlike her son she has made difficult choices and has lived with them bravely. And though it takes a bit of awkward authorial "cheating" to get there, the gradual revelation of how she views her own son was, for me, the most crucial, powerful thread. So ultimately, while the questions the novel asks and explores are compelling, and as engrossed as I was, at times I wished to get out of Arvid's head in a way I haven't with Petterson's other protagonists. But I don't mean that to sound accidental: all along, and especially in the flashes of perspective from other characters, the Arvid's one-dimensional narration seemed intentional and controlled, and I trusted the author, so that frustration never made me want to _stop_ reading but instead added another layer to engage.
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