When he was younger, Arvid Jansen hung above his bed a portrait of Chairman Mao hung, right beside Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. He states that it was a “well-known retouched photograph where [Mao] sits hunched over his desk writing with one of those Chinese brush pens, and I always thought or hoped, that it was not one of his political or philosophical articles he was writing, but one of his poems” (56). This is almost a self-reflexive critique of the recently translated Petterson novels themselves: Can his novels exist without the influence of politics? For both Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia had the somber, heavy backdrop of World War II in Norway. And now in I Curse the River of Time, set also in Norway but in the 1970s and 1980s, we have the spectre of communism and the effects of the Cold War hanging above the narrative.
It’s 1989, the Berlin Wall is about to fall, and Arvid Jansen is thirty-seven. His mother finds out that she has cancer and decides to head home to Denmark. At about the same time, Arvid finds himself proceeding with a divorce, or at least a separation from his wife and daughters—we don’t see any legal actions formally taking part. Arvid and this mother have an estranged relationship—she almost feels more free-spirited and more energetic than her son, who is much more introspective and driven to alcohol. Yet they become companions, an odd couple. His mind is almost the enemy here, as his memories seems to haunt the narrative with embarrassing past events between mother and son: most notably a disastrous toast by him on her fiftieth birthday; and the older and younger girlfriends that Arvid had had who bring him to where he is today. Most of the narrative is in fact a flashback to previous times as Arvid and his mother spend an autumn together piecing their lives together.
If it sounds like the story of Arvid’s arrested development, that’s because it is. Arvid is not really capable of living on his own, of raising a family, of holding a job, of having an original idea. He is a member of the Communist party and attempts to live his life by the book. He enjoys an array of literature, but doesn’t write a word of it. He drinks Calvados, a French brandy, because two characters in Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph do. He says he’s getting divorced, but does little to expedite or even help the process. The only thing that he seems to choose to do is join the Communist party, much to the chagrin of his family and especially his mother as they worked hard for him so he could opt not to work by their side in the factories. He doesn’t even understand the reality of why he was hired in the first place:
‘We liked your father here. He gave his all, every single shift . . .’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘That was the only reason.’
‘I see,’ I said.
‘Yes, that was all.’
I turned and headed for the door, and when I got there and had my hand on the door handle, I stopped and said:
‘Do you know who the people is?’
‘I don’t give a shit.’
‘I thought so,’ I said with something that was meant to be a sarcastic smile, but it was clear that he did not give a damn about the people, nor why I asked the question, and anyway he was already looking at his papers again and did not see my smile. (171-2)
Although Arvid may be a working man of the working class, his employers don’t care about his dogma or his fervency for the Communist doctrine. They’re unaware of the concept of people, a term that at this point is an antique, inadequate, derived from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, another book that his fellow workmen have not read nor would care to read. They’re there to work, not to pontificate on philosophy. They want to talk about football, not social and economic liberation. And it never seems that Arvid is able to make this connection; this disconnect pervades his interior, family life.
He returns to his mother because he can’t form a relationship with his wife. There’s a powerful, sad description of him sitting and resting on the beach, watching his sick mother who is on her knees looking out to the sea:
I lay like this for a few moments to see if she would stand up, but she didn’t. I crawled back and leaned against the mound, squeezed my eyes shut and tried to concentrate. I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it. I pulled some straws from a cluster of marram grass and put them in my mouth and started chewing. They were hard and sharp and cut my tongue, and I took more, a fistful, and stuffed them in my mouth and chewed them while I sat there, waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me. (233)
Arvid is crawling, reverting back to an infant-like stage, revealing his inability to stand upright. He’s being destructive as the ingestion of the marram grass suggests; it cuts through his mouth and tongue. He is like a baby, moving to the oral stage, when he chooses to explore everything through the mouth instead of by touch. It wouldn’t have been shocking, though it would have been trite, if he had commenced sucking his thumb. He doesn’t care if the grass is cutting his mouth like a razor; he’s more concerned with himself and his desires. He can’t handle the power of reality.
This separation from the world, this idealism he has for himself is linked to that image above his bed, Mao perhaps writing a poem not a political treatise. He’s uncertain because he can’t read the Chinese before the Chairman. But regardless of that fact, it’s almost more interesting that he wants Mao’s writing to be a poem, the poem from which the title to this book derives:
Fragile images of departure, the village back then.
I curse the river of time; thirty-two years have passed. (56)
Poetry here trumps the politics, but can the politics be ultimately removed? Can Mao the poet and Mao the leader be two separate entities? Is the past always there to haunt us? Does a reversion to a more natal state bring some sort of absolution from past transgressions? These are some of the questions that Petterson allows his readers to ruminate on, to linger in the mind, to ponder even if his characters do not.