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I’m an Australian expat living in Norway and when I heard a podcast interview, with questions from readers, of Per Petterson by Harriet Gilbert on the BBC World Book Club, I decided it was time to read my first Norwegian novel. Fortunately the Trondheim library had an English translation of Out Stealing Horses and my husband kindly borrowed it for me. I enjoyed reading it.
Out Stealing Horses is narrated in the first person by 67 year old Trond who has moved alone into a rundown cabin in the far east of Norway. Trond is a widower whose wife died three years ago. He moved to the cabin to live in isolation and start again, living off his own resources. The list of jobs that need to be done seems endless and Trond tries to work methodically to make the cabin habitable for the winter. Increasingly Trond reflects on the summer of 1948 when he was 15 that he spent at a different cottage with his father in far eastern Norway.
At its heart this is a novel about a loving relationship between a father and son. They don’t exchange many words but the love between Trond and his father is palpable. Trond’s father has traits that I’ve observed in many (but not all) Scandinavian men of not saying a lot but when they do speak it’s worth listening, seeking solitude, not enjoying having their time wasted by others and always having a list of jobs that require their physical labour.
Trond used a scythe to cut the grass behind the cabin but didn’t cut the patch of nettles. When his father asked him why he didn’t cut the nettles Trond:
looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
“It will hurt” I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
“You decide for yourself when it will hurt,” he said.
On the BBC Petterson talked about the relationship between Norwegians and solitude:
I’ve been lonely many times in my life and it doesn’t feel like solitude it just feels bad
This yearning for the cottage with ten very good books and enough wood for the stove, everyone, even women yearn for that. This is the closest thing we get to a monastery or Norsk Buddhism.
This brings me to the topic of women in Scandinavia and their relationship to men. Petterson’s ‘even women’ comment was interesting (read maddening but I’m trying to be sensitive) and the lack of female characters in his book that weren’t mother, daughter or sex interest is interesting as well (read annoying. This book would definitely fail the Bechdel test). I’ve observed that some Norwegian women (definitely not all and there’s a wide spectrum) talk a lot and make giggly jokes and remind me of bright birds. I wonder if this is a natural counterpart to the predominantly terse men and the long winters they spend together. I’ve also noticed that a lot of Norwegian women are getting a raw deal because they are expected to work full time but still do most of the housework, cooking and child raising while the men work also full-time and do most of the outdoor jobs but don’t help a lot around the house. That wasn’t the purpose of women’s suffrage! It wasn’t designed to make women work two jobs!
I loved the relationship between 67 year old Trond and his dog
I go first and she follows when she is told. I am the boss, we both know that, but she is happy to wait because she knows our system too and smiles as only a dog can smile and jumps a good metre into the air straight up and out over the whole flight of steps when I quietly say: Come on!
I think that Trond must have been badly injured in the car accident that killed his wife. I think that because he regularly talks about his sore back, he refers to the fact that those who know about the accident that killed his wife don’t know everything about it but also this line made me think he’d spent 3 years in a rehabilitation centre:
I felt rather robust myself after three years in a hall of glass where the slightest movement set everything crackling
It was interesting to listen to Petterson talking about how he wrote the book. Some authors plan the entire book methodically before they start writing, instead Petterson starts writing and then makes up a reason for why a character did something and then creates more of the story from there.
If a writer knows something very important that is going to happen in the book then the writer should tell the reader straight away. It’s very cowardly of the writer to know something and keep it from the reader.
Petterson is a talented story teller. I found that I completely believed everything and I was drawn into the story. I do however feel that Petterson left more unsaid than he actually told us. I found myself wanting to know many things. Can you help me?
– what were the repercussions for Jon’s family when the Nazi’s failed to capture the resistance smugglers (Trond’s father and Jon’s mother)
– how did the smugglers get to Sweden without getting captured?
– what happened to the smugglers in Sweden until the end of the war? Were they lovers in Sweden?
– what happened when Jon returned to the farm and how did he impact on the lives of Trond’s father and Jon’s mother and their happiness?
– what happened to Jon’s father?
– how did Trond’s mother survive financially when she was abandoned by her husband?
– what happened in the car accident that killed Trond’s wife and why does he say to himself when talking to strangers they don’t know the whole story.