All in the Family
Per Petterson Brings Steinbeck to Norway in His Latest Novel
Drawing from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, Norwegian author Per Petterson weaves a tale of family pain and friendship.
During his career, popular and critically acclaimed Norwegian author Per Petterson has employed a number of translators to assist him in rendering his work into English: Ann Born, Charlotte Barslund, and now Don Bartlett. Bartlett is the translator on Petterson’s new novel I Refuse (Jeg nekter) along with Graywolf’s simultaneous re-issue of Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, Petterson’s first book, a story collection from 1987.
I Refuse is the story of two old friends, Jim and Tommy, who accidentally meet one September day in 2006, 35 years since they’d last seen each other. In the dark of early morning, Jim is fishing on a bridge outside Oslo when Tommy happens by in his new Mercedes. From that brief meeting, Petterson relates, from various viewpoints, the history of the men’s friendship and their family lives going back to their childhoods in the 1960s and ’70s. Much of the narration comes individually from Jim and Tommy in the first person, but other narratives come from Tommy’s sister Siri, their mother, Tya, and from a neighbor. On occasion, an omniscient third person fills in the narrative gaps in chapters told from Jim’s and Tommy’s viewpoint.
I Refuse is a distressing and moving story involving attempted suicide and child abuse by a despot of a father. Its collateral subjects include despair and, to lesser extent, Christianity versus Socialism. References to Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House help explain the abuse in Tommy Berggren’s family that drove Tya to leave; similarly, allusions to John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon Is Down help explain the Christianity-Socialism theme. Despite the inherent bumpiness of reading multiple viewpoint narratives, this story moves along at a nice and captivating pace, but a few narrative chinks and clunks muck up the surface.
Each in his 50s, Jim is sick and out of work and Tommy is well-off, seemingly successful, but unhappy. As children, they grew up in poor families in or near Mørk. Mørk, in Norwegian, means “dark,” and, according to Tommy, “There were hundreds of places in Norway called Mørk,” and thus plenty of darkness in the novel—especially since “Dark” is the book’s first sentence.
Jim and Tommy were best friends—where you’d see one, you’d see the other. But despite their closeness, they and their upbringings were different. Jim considered himself a Christian and later claimed to be a Socialist. Tommy didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about being Christian. He says, “On a scale of one to ten I was about six, seven at the most….” Jim’s mother, a teacher who taught religion and Norwegian, was loving and perhaps overprotective while Tommy’s father, the ironically named Walle Berggren, a dustman and “the strongest man in the district,” abuses and beats his children, and his wife, if we believe the Doll’s House allusion. Walle, short for “Waldemar,” means “renowned ruler,” in Norwegian, literally, “fame, power.” And at age 13, Tommy finally fights back against his abusive father, this allegedly renowned ruler, by breaking the tyrant’s leg with a bat. Soon, the story details a friendship that dissolves, after a fire to the Berggren home that Tommy was said to have started and an attempted suicide that means time for Jim in a hospital ward called the Bunker.
Reviewers have praised and criticized Petterson’s prose, especially his use of “and” as a connector in run-on sentences, usually invoking a comparison to Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy. James Wood notes that Petterson’s longer “sentences yearn to fly away into poetry.” This long one begins to fly by the time the road is darker:
But I spoke to her anyway, behind the Co-op and the post office in the evening, maybe twice a week for as long as summer lasted and the days were long, and when autumn came, I cycled alone to Mørk in the cold and dark, and the frost had settled, you could feel it on the tarmac, how the tyres sang a different song, and the only lights I could see were the lamps lit in the windows of houses along the road and the shine of the lanterns in the courtyard of farms up against the forest, and they all made the road even darker.
There is a certain urgency in the prose here as when Hemingway describes the charge of a wild animal or when McCarthy writes with the psalm-like pulsating of a cowboy’s wanderings. But Petterson’s sentences sometimes plod and stumble their way along a trail of excitement that doesn’t exist. Why not a serial comma below?
That was where the shop was and the mill and the garage, and the BP station for those who had a car and the school for those who went to school and the church for those who were Christian, and hell…
Clichés creep into the prose, too, through the fault of the translator, the author, or both. In dialogue, especially Jim’s and Tommy’s, there is no sin in speaking the odd cliché at all, but it’s telling of character. The sin is venial, though, when it occurs in first-person narrative, and in third person, it is mortal. In I Refuse the weather is “cold as hell,” cars, machines, and lorries race at a “hell of a speed,” and events transpire “since the dawn of time”; we find wily farmers “beating around the bush,” hear that Tommy’s father had been swept “off the face of the earth,” and water falls “without rhyme or reason.”
In Bartlett’s other translations, It’s Fine by Me and In the Wake, it’s “cold as hell” a couple of times. So, you might blame the translator Bartlett. But how, in the Charlotte Barslund translation with Petterson of I Curse the River of Time, do you account for: “since the dawn of time” and “cold as Hell” and “hurt like hell” as anyone’s fault other than the author’s? You see the same of language in Ann Born’s (with Petterson) translation of Out Stealing Horses: “like a bat out of hell,” “run like hell” and the “crack of dawn.”
Parallels with A Doll’s House help explain why Tommy’s mother left her family and allusions to The Moon Is Down reinforce Petterson’s subtext of standing up to a tyrant. When Tommy mentions their estranged home looks like a doll’s house it is because he and his sister kept it that way after Dad abandoned them. Although Nora of A Doll’s House wasn’t physically abused by her husband, she was emotionally abused. So, when Tommy says it was one week before Christmas when his mother, Tya, (which sounds a lot like Nora) leaves her children, we can guess Petterson wants us to make the connection to Nora, who leaves her family about the same time.
In Steinbeck’s Moon Is Down, Captain Bentick is killed by a pickaxe, the same tool the boys use to “attack” and dig the trench while singing the Norwegian National anthem. In I Refuse, Tommy’s father becomes Steinbeck’s fascist officer and the pickaxe becomes a bat as Tommy perhaps relives smashing his dad’s legs with a bat.
Despite its translation problems, I Refuse succeeds as a fictive recounting of a friendship lost in darkness and as a personal and family history. Its subtext, augmented by the oppressive fascist vs. classless socialist society argument, is a compelling one that lends philosophical backdrop to a dark story.