Monday, March 28, 2011

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I want to talk to you this morning about an exquisitely simple and beautiful little book by the Norwegian author Per Petterson entitled Out Stealing Horses. On the surface, the story is about a sixty-seven year old man who decides to drastically simplify his life by moving to a rustic cabin in a small Norwegian town away from the city life he has known for most of his life. The reader friend who recommended this book to me called it a “quiet” novel, and I can’t think of a more apt description for this story of love between a father and his son. The pace is as quiet and slow as the life of the man, Trond Sander, but beneath the solitude and quiet of the approaching winter lies the tumult of his inner life where past, present, and anticipated future tumble and flow and boil like the river at the doorstep of another cabin—one that he inhabited fifty plus years earlier with his father. His mind moves between the two towns and two times with confusing rapidity. As the great author, Penelope Lively, who is obsessed by what it means to live in time says of the inner life,  “it is all happening at once.” Just so for Trond, everything is happening at once as his present and past merge into a winter-white silence.

When I first began reading this book, the prose seemed so simple as to be almost wooden—no contractions, no obvious idioms. I supposed at first that the super-simplicity of the prose had to do with the translator’s attempts to be absolutely faithful in her translation. Indeed, I actually started the book a couple of times and put it down, spoiled by the wonderfully rich and complex writing of the modern women writers I have been reading. But fortunately I picked it up again when I had time to really let myself flow into the scenes described, and I was simply enchanted.

While city life has been the norm for Trond, he always remembers what it was like to live in a small town very near water. Although his family lived in Oslo, his father had somehow managed to procure a small cabin for the summers on a river that separated Norway from Sweden, and when Trond was fifteen, he and his father had left his mother and sister in Oslo to spend the summer together at the cabin. Although he cannot know this at the time, this will be his last summer at the cabin and also the last time he will ever see his father—unleashing one of the little mysteries that dogs him throughout his life. Perhaps it is the lost father that he hopes somehow to find when he decides all those years later to buy a rustic cabin on a lake, perhaps it is only the simplicity and quietness of life that he longs to recapture, but at any rate he feels compelled to make the move.
All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did. I have been lucky. But even then, for instance in the middle of an embrace and someone whispering words in my ear I wanted to hear, I could suddenly get a longing to be in a place where there was only silence. Years might go by and I did not think about it, but that does not mean that I did not long to be there. And now I am here, and it is almost exactly as I had imagined it.
In that long ago summer, besides the coveted time with his father whom he loves and for whom he has the deepest respect, Trond also begins a friendship with a local boy who is adventurous, even reckless, and who brings out of Trond courage that he never thought he had.
What he had taught me was to be reckless, taught me that if I let myself go, did not slow myself down by thinking too much beforehand I could achieve many things I would never have dreamt possible.
With this boy, Jon, Trond goes out to steal horses, though in fact they never intend really to steal them, but only to ride them within the fenced confines of their forest pasture. It is merely to satisfy their lust for adventure that they call this enterprise stealing horses.

As Trond begins to prepare for the long winter at his run-down cabin, memories from this long past summer crowd in on him, in many ways more real than the mundane events of his everyday life. Jon disappeared from his life that summer even before his father did, engendering another of the little mysteries that recur again and again in his adult meanderings.

Eventually, the reader discovers that the simple life of this man and his dog, a man who intentionally isolates himself, refusing even to get a phone or to inform his now adult daughters of his whereabouts, is full of little mysteries. Even the cabin of his memories, the one on the river dividing Norway and Sweden, was no accidental find made by his father. Instead, the cabin and his father played a part in the resistance to the German occupation of Norway, though Trond comes to learn of this piecemeal and with next to no help from his father. And he learns more a shadow of the events than the events themselves.

What I have not really mentioned yet is the love between father and son, and the immense respect that flows both ways in that relationship. In order to witness that love and its profound impact on the boy, one must read the book. It is not a vocal love, nor does it manifest itself in grand gestures. Instead, it is in day to day interactions between the two, the freedom that the father extends to the boy, the refusal to reprimand or to overtly criticize, and the insistence on teaching by example, that allows the reader to see the glowing love. So intense is this early training (although even that word connotes too much control) that throughout his life when Trond is confronted with a difficult task, he closes his eyes and approaches the problem as he imagines his father would have—slowly, patiently, methodically.
What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that’s what I have done for as long as I can remember, as if the secret lies in how the body behaves towards the task at hand, in a certain balance when you start, like hitting the board in a long jump and the early calculation of how much you need, or how little, and the mechanism that is always there in every kind of job; first one thing and then the other, in a context that is buried in each piece of work, in fact as if what you are going to do already exists in its finished form, and what the body has to do when it starts to move is to draw aside the veil so it all can be read by the person observing. And the person observing is me, and the man I am watching, his movements and skills, is a man of barely forty, as my father was when I saw him for the last time when I was fifteen, and he vanished from my life forever.

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