After reading ‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson, I thought I will read ‘To Siberia’ written by him, which I had got along with ‘Out Stealing Horses’. I finished reading most of the book yesterday – and if some sudden things hadn’t cropped up, I would have finished the book yesterday itself, which rarely happens for me, because I am a slow reader – and finished reading the last few chapters today. Here is what I think.
What I think
‘To Siberia’ is about a sister and brother growing up during the Second World War in Denmark, when the Germans occupy Denmark. The sister is the narrator of the story, and her name is unknown. The brother is called Jesper. The first part of the book is about the sister and brother growing up in a small town in Denmark and the adventures they have together and the happy and sad moments that they experience. Then the German soldiers come into Denmark and things change. Jesper works with the resistance group against the Nazis and has to leave the country at some point of time. The war ends but for some reason the sister leaves the country. She works in different places – the telephone exchange, a glass blowing factory – and finally ends up as a waitress in a café. Then she has a brief affair with a customer who frequents the café and gets pregnant. She decides to go home and spend time with her parents while she is expecting, but when she lands up at home, she discovers that her brother has died. Her mother refuses to take her in because her mother is a very strict Christian and the narrator is pregnant without being married. So, our heroine, the narrator, decides to spend her time with an acquaintance in their sheep farm taking care of the ewes that are going to lamb soon, while she herself is expecting to give birth to a baby. The story ends with this. It is not very clear what happens next – whether the narrator gave birth to a baby, what happened after that, did she fall in love, did she get married, did she finally manage to travel to Siberia.
‘To Siberia’ had what I have come to expect out of a Per Petterson book now – long and beautiful sentences. However, in this book, the focus was more on the plot rather than on the sentences and the language. I somehow felt that this was one of his early works and Petterson’s prose was still getting finetuned and it all came together gloriously in ‘Out Stealing Horses’. I liked ‘To Siberia’ – not as much as ‘Out Stealing Horses’, but I still liked it. It is a story of growing up, of the love between brothers and sisters, of how the Second World War affected people.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
And then it began to rain. It came from all directions at full speed and not on us, but against us with the wind right in our faces; we tried to turn away, walk sideways so as not to drown and Jesper gave up and ran out into the middle of the road and began to dance with his arms in the air.
When they have gone away they leave a dusty emptiness behind them, the air is stuffy and lifeless like the bottom of a purse, and my father gets to work on the cupboard or the chest and shapes up and remakes and polishes and rubs until the surfaces shine with the glow that is at the heart of all wood, shining without any varnish and with handles of finely carved bone. After a few days they come to fetch it, and then the piece stands there in the centre of the floor as good as new, better than new, and I have searched for the word year after year, looked it up in books and thought and pondered and found substance. They bring a wreck and leave with substance, and they see it and look dumbfounded and praise my father until his ears flame. When they have gone he has charged them the same amount as last year and the year before that and the year before that again.
“I thought you were an angel,” he mumbled.
“Angels have fair hair. Besides, they don’t exist.”
“Mine do, and they have dark hair.”
“You can learn a lot about human beings by studying insects,” he says, “their world is like ours in miniature, they just have a far better distribution of work.” There may be clarity and contrasts in Lone’s family, but I don’t care for insects. Insects scratch and tickle, they creep up under your dress and sting you.
I usually sit listening, and a lot of what was said was meant for me. I was a woman and young, and they grew red in the face and excited, with their hands in the air competing for who would come out with the most brilliant riposte. Those elderly men infected me with their enthusiasm, they did not speak in one voice, they interrupted each other and dressed up history in words and flickering yellow-brown pictures until it felt like a home, and I was the guest of honour.
Have you read ‘To Siberia’? What do you think about it?