Per Petterson’s tale of boyhood friendship and adult reckoning.
Guest Review by Lanie Tankard
But that’s life. That’s what you learn from; when things happen.
—Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses
Per Petterson, long loved by Norwegian readers, has become well respected outside the Scandinavian region as his books are rendered in other tongues. The prize-winning 2007 novel Out Stealing Horses was tagged one of that year’s Top Ten by both the New York Times and TIME Magazine, and has been translated into forty-nine languages. He’s written other fiction, but it’s been several years since the last book.
Until now. Number Nine, I Refuse, is due out in April—and it’s a gem.
The concise title symbolizes Petterson’s latest work. It’s short, as is the novel at less than 300 pages. The two-word label is clean, almost Spartan, conveying details through brevity—like most of the sentences found within. Yet one still encounters protracted sentences that reverberate like a drum, steadily provoking a sense of dread. One such powerful linguistic unit containing 156 words focuses on memory.
Rights to the novel have been sold in sixteen countries. For the American edition, designer Kyle G. Hunter used a single row of black leafless trees ringing a frozen pond to slash the utterly white cover in half. One must look closely to find two dark silhouettes trudging toward one another on its surface. Or, are they? The title’s succinct words appear in red against this cold backdrop, almost as a semaphore to signal the reader about what’s inside this lean Nordic tale.
And what’s there is urgently subtle, as a childhood incident on an icy pond races through the neural pathways of the two main characters, Jim and Tom, after a chance meeting as adults. Per Petterson melts away that memory, lodged in the ice crystals of their minds for several decades, in unhurried fashion. He nudges synapses and tweaks neurotransmitters for the protagonists, allowing their retained impressions of troubled childhoods to bubble forth. It’s almost as if Petterson were conducting a musical composition, employing his pen as a baton.
What the author begins as a duet, then, gently broadens. A minor third emerges—the voice of Tom’s sister, Siri. Next an oratorio develops as various parental figures with individual chapters create a chorus. The theme “I refuse” starts to appear in variations.To anticipate a totally somber presentation of the serious events in this novel, however, is to miscalculate Petterson’s control of his fictional world. More than once I found myself unexpectedly laughing out loud as he displayed wry brilliant humor in the depiction of certain scenes, such as a doctor in a hospital or tension á la Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
Fishing analogies appear, conveying equivalence between independent parts. “White frozen sheets” hanging out to dry resemble flags of surrender.
Petterson has chosen each word in this story for a reason. Needless ones have been whittled away. When the author’s voice reaches the reader’s mind, it has been honed to an invisible sharpness that compels listening. The fact that he eschews question marks somehow enhances this sensation.
I Refuse contemplates the passage of time, the power of memories, the mystery of disappearances, and the residue of encounters long past. How many things can a person refuse to do? What are the repercussions of refusal? Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in The Devil and the Good Lord: “I am no longer sure of anything. If I satiate my desires, I sin but I deliver myself from them; if I refuse to satisfy them, they infect the whole soul.”
Refusal can indicate unwillingness, not accepting something, or denial. Petterson’s title almost evokes the succinct “J’accuse!” heading of Émile Zola’s open newspaper letter to French authorities. Both terse designations bear the sound of outrage and accusation against someone more powerful—Zola’s in a loud way and Petterson’s in a soft way.
“I refuse” is jeg nekter in Norwegian. It’s me niego in Spanish. In German, it becomes three words, ich weigere mich, as it does in Mongolian: bi khog khayagdal. And yet, no matter how that idea is uttered, a refuser balks, stopping a forward trajectory.
Per Petterson, in his own inimitable and minimalistic manner, quietly examines the long-lasting effects of childhood events in adult lives and the different paths people choose when they refuse to be victims. I Refuse is bound to be one of 2015’s fiction jewels.
Don Bartlett translated I Refuse from the Norwegian. He also did a 2012 translation of Petterson’s 1992 novel It’s Fine By Me. And his recent translation of Petterson’s 1987 debut, a short-story collection called Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, is due out from Graywolf the same day as I Refuse.
Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville.