Translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born, this 2005 New York Times Book Review choice as "One of the Ten Best Books of the Year" begins with this simple opening: "Early November. It's nine o'clock. The titmice are banging against the window. Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again."
This quiet but eerie introduction to Trond Sandler's return to a place he spent the summer as a youth sets the tone and establishes the beautiful prose that Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson uses in telling an universal story of family and loss -- the innocence of childhood fully blasted by the anguish of understanding.
Now sixty-seven, Trond , three years after the death of his second wife, moves from the city of Oslo to a remote cabin along a riverside in a small community on the northeastern edge of Norway.
At this idyllic spot on a river, Trond reminisces about the summer he was fifteen. It was 1948; and even though the German occupation still cast its evil shadow, Trond and his father leave his sister and mother in Oslo and spend the summer in a remote small town working the land for a local farmer as well as independently moving timber down river to Sweden.
The cabin that he and his dad rent is the same one that Trond now lives in with the intent of fixing it up and living out his last days.
Even though Petterson's story is not a new one, his prose makes it seem original and refreshing -- the importance of not just telling a story, but telling it well -- the laying out of each sentence as important -- not just a means to an end... or perhaps, he just understands the power of diction. :)
In Out Stealing Horses, Petterson flips back and forth between past and present with Trond's story -- with seamless chronology.
The sixty-seven year old Trond relates how "Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking."
"So the feeling of pleasure slips into a feeling that time has passed, that it is very long ago, and the sudden feeling of being old."
After the death of his second wife and sister, Trond explains his reason for his move: "After they were gone I lost interest in talking to people. I really do not know what to talk to them about. That is one reason for living here. Another reason is being close to the forest. It was a part of my life many years ago in a way that nothing later has been, and then it was absent for a very long time, and when everything around me suddenly turned silent, I realized how much I had missed it."
When a tragedy strikes the young son of a nearby family, it is the fifteen-year old voice of Trond telling of the trip by boat back upriver with his father and his thinking of what had happened: "... I thought about how it must feel to lose your life so early. Lose your life, as if you held an egg in your hand, and then dropped it, and it fell to the ground and broke, and I knew it could not feel like anything at all. If you were dead, you were dead, but in the fraction of a second just before; whether you realised it was the end, and what that felt like. There was a narrow opening there, like a door barely ajar..."
"In one instant everything was changed and destroyed."
That's the language, mesmerizing in its simplicity but striking in its truth, that Petterson pens as he tells this story.
Petterson's story of Trond is nothing new -- no new ground is broken, but the same ground walked upon again with a different set of feet --- "when I sit here now, in the kitchen of the old house I have planned to make into a livable place in the years left in me.. I look back to that time, I see how each movement through the landscape took color from what came afterwards and cannot be separated from it. And when someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not any more. If I just concentrate, I can walk into memory's store and find the right shelf with the right film and disappear into it..."
Petterson reminds me of Faulkner --it's the cadence of his writing. He tells a good story -- and it's not really the story itself that's memorable -- it's the way it's told.
The memory, as the saying goes, is in the telling.
ETA: I added the map for your edification --- yo, Wingate? Did you know how far north those darn Nazis came?