To Siberia by Per Petterson

petterson_to.jpgLast year's translation of Per Petterson's 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses earned him rave reviews and several prizes (it was a New York Times Best Book of the Year and won the 100,000-euro IMPAC Dublin Award). I greatly admired the book when I read it earlier this year, and I quickly picked up a copy of his other work available in translation, In the Wake. That work, published in 2000, is a deeply personal novel based in part on the deaths of Petterson's parents and sibling in the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia ferry.

The success of these works led to the recent republication of his 1996 novel, To Siberia, which I purchased the week of its release and read last weekend. The book follows a nameless female protagonist from her childhood in rural northern Denmark until the Nazi occupation of her homeland splits her family and prompts her to leave her home. She is the narrator of her own story, though she is looking back at her life at 60 years old, with a palpable sheen of melancholy.

In childhood, the girl is particularly close to her brother, Jesper, due to the emotional dysfunction of her parents and extended family; by the second chapter her grandfather has hung himself in the cowshed. One of her early memories involves sneaking out with her brother to spy into the windows of a pub, where they watch their grandfather instigate a fight with a local aristocrat. Jesper runs into the bar to join, only to be interrupted by the arrival of his own father, who is then taunted by their grandfather:

"Why don't you just go home if you won't drink with your own father? You were never like others, were you? You have never known why, born in pain and begotten in more than pain, a thorn in the flesh from the start. Go home to your warm house and leave the boy with me."

Jesper leaves with his father, though with some hesitation, a sign of the rebellious spirit that will drive him into the resistance against the Nazis later in the book. Both children dream of flight; he to Morocco, and she to Siberia, which she envisions as "open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances" (rumors that Siberia contains prison camps are dismissed as "Nazi propaganda"). This dream, however, is interrupted by the German invasion in April 1940 and the three-year occupation that followed. Her brother Jesper joins the resistance (which did tremendous work in saving Denmark's Jewish population), eventually forcing him to flee the country:

I feel myself stiffen. Of course he must get away. He cannot stay in this shack long, he must have food and drink and someone must get it out to him. No one knows when the war will end, and as long as it lasts he must stay hidden. It's no good. Sooner or later he would be caught. But it had not occurred to me.

Shocked and listless after Jesper's departure, she begins a nomadic life, leading first to Copenhagen, then Sweden, and then to Oslo, Norway. These wanderings make up the latter third of the book, which is notably less evocative than the early chapters, perhaps reflecting the protagonist's growing emotional distance from reality. As a child she noticed great detail in animals and nature; later in life she is barely moved by physical intimacy. Thus the melancholy becomes bleak, and her youth feels like a burden when her hopes and dreams are no more:

I was so young then, and I remember thinking: I'm twenty-three years old, there is nothing left in life. Only the rest.

Dark as it is, To Siberia is still superior to In the Wake. Though surely an important catharsis for the author, In the Wake was simply too detached to make much impact. But To Siberia lacks the maturity of the more recent Out Stealing Horses. There are a multitude of evocative scenes included early in the book which offer a stilted sense of mystery in her family's history, but these are left unexamined, unexplained, unresolved. The protagonist's personal interactions in the latter half of the book serve little function but to exhibit through repetition how broken she is. One hopes that Petterson's work since 2003 is next in the queue to be translated and published here.