Not since Sebald has an author revitalized our sense of what’s possible in modern fiction as Per Pettersen has, in the humble opinion of Little Star. In prose so simple as to be almost invisible, he renders characters (usually just one) who are achingly human in their moral limitations and yet panoramically aware. I Curse the River of Time, published today, brings us a man who cannot seem quite to grow into his middle age as he navigates the mortal illness of his mother, a presence who is painfully near, yet painfully unknown. As always the simplicity and clarity of the Scandinavian landscape elevate the scene to a universal stillness. Here are a few lines from a remembered journey with a girl to a remote cabin in the off season:
The rowing boat was fibreglass and rode too high in the water, if you ask me, and did not pick up the momentum it could have had when finally I fell into a rhythm I thought was good, unlike a wooden dinghy. So I struggled to keep her in a straight line, and I started to sweat, and frankly, it annoyed me. I saw her face flushed in the cold air and her eager eyes following the shiny line and the white scrubbed water, and along the shore there was a fog still drifting among the trees and turning them into mythical creatures from some heathen past. A pale rose streak was floating above the red cabins along the bay and from behind the sun was breaking through, and why so annoyed, I thought, this is fine, this is so fine, you could not have wished for better, why should you not sweat a little.
“Jesus, this boat is hard work,” I said.
“I know,” she said, “they’re like that, these fibreglass boats, they’re really too light.” Then she got a bite. She started and called out “Got one! Fucking hell, we’re going to get the bastard,” she yelled, and I had not heard her swear like this before, and I truly liked it, it was exciting.
She let the fish thrash around before slowly reeling it in and lifting it carefully over the side.
“A perch,” she said, “a big one, too.”
“Congratulations,” I said, and I did mean it, and she took a bow and dropped her head like maybe Chaplin would have done, or Pinocchio in the cartoon with his head on a string, and her cap tipped forward and she placed her left hand on the right side of her chest and held the rod in an arc above her head and let the fish dangle.
“A small fish in your honour, my sweet.”
I laughed and together we got the perch of the hook and tossed it into the bottom of the boat where it flapped about, and poor little fish, she said, and I took a stick that was there for that purpose and whacked it pretty hard on the head, and it flapped a little more and then lay still.
I straightened up. I could feel the sun on my back, the fog melting away, the ice melting. Her face was golden, her hair was golden, and she lifted her face to the sun and closed her eyes in the dazzling light.
“Do I have a tan now?” she said.
I laughed again. “You and I,” I said. “Just you and I.”
“Isn’t it fun,” she said and she smiled. I let the oars rest in the oarlocks. The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and it was impossible to grasp that in the end something so fine could be ground to dust.
Per Petterson in conversation with Leonard Lopate