Per Petterson’s “To Siberia”

Reviewed by Alex Young

Image of Per Petterson’s “To Siberia”

In 2007 Per Petterson had his second publication in the United States: a short, unostentatious, and penetrating novel entitled Out Stealing Horses. It was a surprising commercial and critical success, propelled in no small part by Thomas McGuane's feature-length review in the New York Times Book Review that coincided with the novel's release. McGuane's review is itself a sort of masterpiece, establishing subtle continuities between Petterson's Norway and the American literary landscape. Its opening paragraph ends with a bold statement about Trond Sander, the narrator of Out Stealing Horses: "he is more like us than other Scandinavian protagonists."

This pronouncement is clearly a generalization, but it rings true: Scandinavian fiction tends to enthrall or, more often, baffle, an American readership through the very otherness of the characters it inhabits. The story of Trond Sander's quixotic retreat into rural life as he makes peace with his troubled past, on the other hand, is one that resonates with those American readers weaned on tales of reinvention in the vastness of the American West.

To Siberia: A Novel—a novel Petterson published prior to Out Stealing Horses, but which made its U.S. debut in September—confronts his American readers with a protagonist who does not offer such an easy entry point for identification. Here Petterson once again employs a first-person narration in which a sixty-year-old protagonist reimagines the tumultuous events surrounding the Second World War in Northern Europe, but this time readers are given little detail about the present circumstances of the nameless narrator doing the reimagining. Suffice it to say that she (like McGuane's Cadence of Grass, To Siberia is an interesting foray by a very masculine novelist into the world of a female protagonist) does not believe the details of her later life to be too important.

We know from the narrator's adolescence in Northern Denmark that she is intelligent, willful, and working-class, but there is also the lingering sense that at some point something went very wrong. The action begins with the subtly menacing fantasy of a young girl riding in the back of a horse-drawn trap with her brother and grandfather. She fears that the decorative stone lions guarding a gate on the outskirts of her small town will jump off their pillars and chase her:

 

"They're coming, they're coming!" shouted my brother, who knew all about these lions. They tore themselves free of the stone blocks and grew larger, and I jumped off the trap heedless of the speed, grazed my knees on the gravel and ran out into the nearest field. There were roe deer and stags in the forest beyond the field, and I thought about that as I ran.

These declarative sentences owe much to Petterson's acknowledged influences, Hemingway and Hamsun, and are ably translated in the hands of Anne Born. A British translator, Born manages, as she did in Out Stealing Horses, the difficult feat of translating dialogue in such a way that it feels comfortable on either side of the Atlantic.

With the carefully controlled tension evinced in the passage above, the narrator's small town in Jutland is animated by historical forces as incomprehensible as the imaginative ones that propel the stone lions in this opening fantasy. At the center of her adventures and tragedies, fueling them with a preternatural inner heat, is her brother Jesper. Jesper is a romantic and a socialist who is transformed with a disquieting rapidity from an ornery kid who impresses his quiet sister by taunting the alcoholic and buffoonish local baron, into a resistance fighter who executes occupying German soldiers.

One of Petterson's true gifts, and one of the most striking parallels between Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia, is his uncanny ability to present an allegory of epic scope without compromising his quietly lyrical tone. As Jesper's story unfolds, we see in him the entire arc of leftist radicalism in the thirties and forties, but this embodiment is achieved without sacrificing our sense of the character's interior life to the winds of history. Nowhere is this feat more apparent than in the source of the title, the narrator's fantasy of travel to Siberia:

 

What I liked was the train ride. It took an hour and that was enough for me to be able to lean backward against the seat with closed eyes, feel the joints in the rail come up and thump through my body and sometimes peer out of the windows and see windswept heathland and imagine I was on the Trans-Siberian railway[…] Jesper was heading for Morocco. That would be too hot for me. I wanted open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances, but his pictures were mysterious and alluring […]

The world of To Siberia is defined by these contrasts of temperature and temperament. As Jesper blazes his way through the conflict between Communism and Fascism on his way to Morocco—an ironically apt end-point for Jesper's journey, given the country's status as a refuge for expatriate radicals, and the collapse of its own socialist movement in the 1950s—his sister moves quietly through a less glamorous working-class existence. Her parents don't think it appropriate for a girl to attend high school under the Nazis, so an aborted education and a series of working-class jobs in various Scandinavian cities form the backdrop against which Petterson's narrator seeks to realize the solitary liberation of her fantasy.

The narrator's coldness can feel very alien, perhaps unbelievably so. She reacts to the grossest injustices—her removal from school, for instance, and her firing from a job as a telephone operator due to an absurd misunderstanding—with an unruffled stoicism that expresses the emotional toll of these events only through her silence. In addition to her reaction to failure, she seems to flee from potential refuge with an almost inexplicable callousness. When characters begin to dismiss the narrator's dreams of traveling to Siberia because they associate the region with the spreading rumors of Stalin's prison camps, we begin to wonder if, despite the austere beauty of her vision, the narrator's dream might also represent her own incarceration within the cold walls that her troubled past has built around her psyche.

If Petterson's narrator seems distant from us, perhaps it is because we want her to be otherwise—we don't like to imagine ourselves as coolly accepting injustice and hardship. If this voice is unfamiliar to Americans' image of ourselves, however, it is surely not unfamiliar to our experience. In the orgy of self-congratulatory films and books released around the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, it is the heat we like to remember: the G.I. in combat, the fiery orators who aroused our hopes. To Siberia is a brilliant portrait and an unsettling reminder that, in the struggle that defeated Fascism, there was also a price paid by untold millions of individuals whose sacrifice was less visible—solitary, cold—but just as significant.

Alex Young is a poet and teacher from Oklahoma currently living in Tangier, Morocco. His recent poetry can be found in publications such as The Brooklyn Rail and Cannibal; he also reviews poetry and fiction for newwest.net/books.