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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?

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A few days back I thought that I will take out some books from my bookshelf which I have always wanted to read (they pulled me strongly and that is why I bought them), but for some reason or other, I have never got around to reading. The first one I took out was ‘Out Stealing Horses’ by Per Petterson. I did a readathon yesterday evening and finished it. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

‘Out Stealing Horses’ is about a man called Trond Sander who lives in Norway at the turn of the millennium – the most recent one. He lives in a house alone in the countryside which is surrounded by a forest. He has a neighbour nearby called Lars who also lives in the same way. Trond doesn’t have a telephone or a television. He keeps in touch with the outside world through his radio. He has an old car using which he goes out sometimes for grocery shopping or for getting tools and other stuff for his house. Trond narrates his life as it is now and also talks about his dog Lyra, his neighbour Lars, his car mechanic and a few other people whom he meets once in a while. While describing his current life, his mind goes back to his childhood, when he used to spend his summers in the countryside with his father chopping wood and playing with one of the boys who lived nearby. Trond goes back in time and describes his relationship with his father and the one last summer that he spent in the countryside. During the course of that time he discovered secrets about his father, about what his father did during the second world war, which surprised him. The whole book continues like this with different strands of the story set during different times. How the different strands come together in the end form the rest of the book.

 

The first thing I have to say about ‘Out Stealing Horses’ is Petterson’s prose. It is simple, lyrical, has beautiful thoughts and flows like a river. It was a pleasure to read every page, every sentence. I didn’t want the book to end, just for this. I also like the way Petterson moves the plot forward. Instead of just writing pages and pages of monologues with beautiful prose and ideas, he also pushes the story forward with transition between the two strands of the story happening seamlessly. And the third thing – the beautiful prose and thoughts. There were pages and pages of them and they challenged the capabilities of my overworked but untiring highlighting pen. The evocation of life in the countryside – in both strands of the story – is very delightful to read. It takes one to Norway and one can smell the wood and the forest and the grass and the cows and the hay and hear the swans and feel the heat of the woodstove and feel the cold of the snow and hear the ripple of the river. The beginning of the story was beautiful – there is even a reference to cricket in the second page (cricket in a Norwegian novel – imagine!) – and the ending was sad. Not tragic but sad in a beautiful way. The fourth thing about the story were the long sentences – sometimes these sentences went on for half a page and sometimes, even upto a page, almost Proustian. But they didn’t tax the brain as long sentences usually do – they evoked a series of images and the mind moved smoothly taking in each of them. I don’t remember the last time I felt so comfortable with so long sentences.

 

‘Out Stealing Horses’ was in the top-10 lists a few years back. I now know why. What I don’t know is why I waited for so long to read it. Life is too short and I rarely re-read novels these days, but I hope I get to read this one again.

 

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book, some of them with long sentences.

 

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook. No-one can touch you unless you yourself want them to. You only have to be polite and smile and keep paranoid thoughts at bay…

 

He compresses his mouth into a thin line and squeezes his eyes tightly together, then he twists his whole face forty-five degrees to the right and down past his ear, or at least that’s what it looks like and the features I have barely become familiar with shrink into wrinkles, and he freezes it in that position for a while before opening his eyes and letting each part of his face fall back into place while the smoke goes on seeping out past his lips, and I do not have the slightest idea what kind of performance I have just witnessed.

 

…I really wanted to be alone. To solve my problems alone, one at a time, with clear thinking and good tools, like my father probably did those times at the cabin, took on one task after another, assessing it and putting out the tools he needed in a calculated order starting at one end and working his way through to the other, thinking and using his hands and enjoying what he did, in the same way I want to enjoy what I do, to solve the daily challenges that may be tricky enough, but within clear limits, with beginnings and ends to them that I can foresee, and then be tired in the evening but not exhausted, and wake up all rested in the morning, brew my coffee and light the stove and look out at the light that comes pink over the forest towards the lake and get dressed and walk the paths with Lyra, and then get on with the tasks I have decided shall fill that day. That is what I want, and I know I can do it, that I have it in me, the ability to be alone, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

 

…I shut my eyes into a squint and looked across the water flowing past below the window, shining and glittering like a thousand stars, like the Milky Way could sometimes do in the autumn rushing foamingly on and winding through the night in an endless stream, and you could lie out there beside the fjord at home in the vast darkness with your back against the hard sloping rock gazing up until your eyes hurt, feeling the weight of the universe in all its immensity press down on your chest until you could scarcely breathe or on the contrary be lifted up and simply float away like a mere speck of human flesh in a limitless vacuum, never to return. Just thinking about it could make you vanish a little.

 

Have you read ‘Out Stealing Horses’? What do you think about it?

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