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My World is Not Like That

December 5, 2008

Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses
By Per Petterson

Transl. Anne Born

This book is the reason that I have an irrational desire to go to Norway. I wanted to read it after seeing it on The New York Times’s Book Review’s list of the top 10 books of 2007. It sounded intriguing, the title was fantastic, and it was by a foreign author, and you know how I love those. A few weeks ago, I decided that I finally had to read it and was delighted to find a copy of it at the Undergraduate Library.

I’m always a little wary of reading literature in translation, which is such a shame because that fear excludes such a wealth of great literature. But when you meet a translator as skillful as Anne Born, you feel like you are in good hands. Petterson’s style, beautifully translated by Born, is simple and enchanting. One of my favorite passages from the book, which I have made a good number of my friends read, demonstrates the compelling and yet magical pull of his prose:

The sun was high in the sky now, it was hot under the trees, it smelt hot, and from everywhere in the forest around us there were sounds; of beating wings, of branches bending and twigs breaking, and the scream of a hawk and a hare’s last sigh, and the tiny muffled boom each time a bee hit a flower. I heard the ants crawling in the heather, and the path we followed rose with the hillside; I took deep breaths through my nose and thought that no matter how life should turn out and however far I travelled I would always remember this place as it was just now, and miss it.

That part with the bee–oh! It kills me every time.

The narrator is an old man named Trond who lives in an isolated cabin deep in a Norwegian forest with his dog, Lyra. Trond is an interesting narrator because even though he is the only character we truly know, we still feel far from him. He is a deeply private person, which is a really fascinating characteristic to give your narrator, who is supposed to make everything plain to your reader. But we like Trond. He is a little sad, a little secretive. And like men who live alone in the woods, he deals primarily in memory.

It is Trond’s childhood that we become closely acquainted with, centering on an afternoon when he goes out, stealing horses, with his best friend. And that day sets a chain of events into motion that change Trond’s life forever.

Trond’s love of Dickens reappears several times in the novel. Dickens is a deliberately curious choice for Trond’s favorite author, and Trond himself even comments on this in one passage:

I have in fact done a lot of reading particularly during the last few years, but earlier too, by all means, and I have thought about what I’ve read, and that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again. A consolation, maybe, or a protest against a world gone off the rails, but it is not like that anymore, my world is not like that, and I have never gone along with those who believe our lives are governed by fate.   

This belief of Trond’s in free will and personal destiny shapes the course of the novel itself, or, perhaps more accurately, the course of what Trond chooses to tell us. I confess I was a bit baffled and maybe even disappointed by the ending–it wasn’t sensible, it wasn’t neat–but that is precisely what Trond is decrying in this passage. Our lives are not tidy Dickens novels; no shimmering coincidences will appear and set everything right. More often than anything else, life turns out entirely differently than we thought it would–and Trond himself is the shining testament to this truth.

A thoroughly excellent novel; highly recommended. I am looking forward to reading his latest book in translation, To Siberia.

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