Thursday, 23 October 2014

'I Refuse' by Per Petterson (Review)

While I do my best to cover the wide world of fiction in translation, there's still much out there untried, with many writers I want to check out.  One, in particular, that I've been meaning to get to for some time is Per Petterson, author of several books including Out Stealing Horses, a work which won both the IMPAC Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  With a copy of his most recent book dropping through my letter box recently, now seemed like a good opportunity to see him in action - and on the strength of this one, he's definitely a writer I want to try more of in the future :)

I Refuse (translated by Don Bartlett, review copy courtesy of Random House UK) begins in 2006 on a bridge near Oslo.  Jim, an unemployed middle-aged man, is off fishing early in the morning, when a car stops and a window goes down, through which a greeting is proffered.  The man in the car is Tommy, Jim's closest childhood friend, one he hasn't seen for over thirty years.  After a brief exchange of pleasantries, they go their separate ways, but both feel that they have unfinished business which needs to be resolved.

Then it's back to the early sixties, where we encounter two boys about to enter their teens, a couple of friends in the middle of small-town blues and family crises.  Through the ups and downs, and flashes both forward and back, we see what was and what has developed, witnessing decisions which turned out to be life changing.  We are also present when offers are refused and backs are turned - little things which set the course for the boys' future...

I'm definitely very happy I picked this book up.  Though I Refuse is a book which is easy to read, it's most certainly not simplistic.  Petterson's novel is a well-worked, absorbing story of two friends and the choices they make, and it also paints a picture of small-town Norway in the sixties and seventies while touching on more serious contemporary issues.

The main focus is on the two boys/men, mismatched friends who turn out quite differently.  Jim is a quiet boy, intelligent and brought up strictly by his Christian mother, so when we see how he's ended up (unemployed, sleeping around, with undiagnosed mental issues), it's a bit of a surprise.  Slowly, we learn more about his struggles, his loneliness and the panic attacks:
"And then all of a sudden I couldn't breathe and tumbled against the wall and the coats hanging there from their pegs and pulled at least two of them down with me and crashed against the shoe rack, and there was a big plastic shoehorn stuck in behind the rack, and it hit me in the ribs like a spear, and it hurt so much I was about to start howling, which was something I often did in those days, when I was alone, pretty often in fact, it's true, and it had been like that for quite a while, and I didn't know why, but this time not a sound came out."
pp.86/7 (Harvill Secker, 2014)
During his school days, Jim always had Tommy to turn to in his darkest hours; however, as an adult, Jim is very alone with a problem he struggles to handle.

While Tommy's life has turned out a little differently, he has (and has had) problems of his own.  The teenage Tommy is an angry young man with every right to his rage.  His mother has run away (leaving Tommy to care for the family) mainly through fear of her husband - and Tommy's father is a very scary man indeed:
"Gently, almost, he held my arm and led me into the living room.  Then he closed the door carefully behind us, turned and suddenly he started to shove me around the room among the little furniture we had, and each time I was sent flying, he came after me and punched me hard in the shoulder and the throat and hurled me against the wall, where my head smacked against the panel, and it was shocking that he didn't use his boots." (p.28)
Tommy, as he will in the future, refuses to accept the status quo and decides to stand up for himself.  However, when we make a decision, we can never be completely sure of the consequences, and his stand shapes the lives of more people than he could have expected.

The novel initially appears to be focused purely on the two friends, but as it progresses, we begin to hear different voices.  The main one is Siri, Tommy's sister, the only person with strong links to both of the boys, and her perspective allows us to see Jim and Tommy through different eyes, a more objective viewpoint.  Towards the end of the novel, we also hear from Tommy's mother and Jonsen, the man who takes Tommy in.  The more we hear from these people, the more of the story we get to know about, allowing us to piece together puzzles which had previously remained a mystery.

I Refuse is an excellent story of growing up in small-town Norway, with the writer showing us how strong friendships develop, and how they can gradually unravel.  At times, it can be a little bleak, but there are many nice touches, one of which is a fairly casual 'interrogation' at the local police station.  In a small town, where secrets are a scarce commodity, everyone knows who's guilty, but there's no need to try too hard to get a conviction...

For those who have been following Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle series, there are plenty of similarities to be found here, with echoes of both Boyhood Island (kids on bikes riding to the local petrol station, bus rides to school) and A Death in the Family - especially when Tommy visits his father's house:
"And everywhere there was rubbish in plastic bags which had never got across the doorstep nor down to the road, and most wasn't even in the bag but was tossed around, so the floor was covered with litter, and an evil smell drifted in through the open doors of two other rooms, from the bathroom and what must have been the room where he slept with the windows closed, and it was disgusting to think that he could sleep in that room, and the worst was the foul, numbing, ominous stench wafting in from the kitchen, where my father stood by the door..." (pp.216/7)
No, it's not a book which completely echoes Knausi's work, but with Karl Ove receiving such attention in English, comparisons with his fellow Norwegian writer are, frankly speaking, inevitable.

That's especially so as the excellent translation was created by Don Bartlett, a man who also provides the English voice of a certain other Norwegian writer...  While it's another great job by Bartlett, it's a very different style.  The writing is simple and elegant, flowing sentences with multiple simple clauses sweeping the reader along.  A childish enthusiasm turns descriptive prose into a kind of confession, taking the reader into the characters' confidence.  At times, it seems almost as if we have their ear...

The story is also wonderfully constructed, and secrets are gradually unveiled in a calm, matter-of-fact way until the big picture becomes clear.  The reader is given parts of the puzzle, but is forced to wait to see how they come together.  However, the same is true for the two main characters, as they spend the contemporary part of the book crossing paths unaware.  Theirs are two very different lives in terms of success and wealth - despite this, they are both broken and unhappy.

I Refuse is an enjoyable work, one I'd definitely recommend, and it's a book which will certainly be under discussion come IFFP time next year.  Luckily for me, having only just started with Petterson's work, there are plenty more of his books out there - another six of his novels have been translated into English (and many of them are available at my local library).  Now, of course, there's only one thing stopping me trying another one - I just need to find the time to read it ;)