by Per Petterson
Graywolf Press, 2008
Reviewed by Jake Davis
Coming of age stories and depictions of the passage from childhood to adulthood are a staple of storytelling. Every year a new crop of films, novels, plays, songs, TV programs and even video games that investigate the hard edge of aging are packaged and distributed through cultural channels, and every year some of them appear fresh and many of them are stale. Thankfully a few of them are exceptionally refreshing and crisp, like the surprise of a tartly pleasant apple in mid November.
To Siberia, the third of Per Petterson's novels to be translated into English, is one of these. It is the narration of a 60-year-old woman as she recounts her childhood in a small Scandinavian town and then her broader travels. By way of her growing perception and understanding--that is, as she grows up--we witness the world's gradual shift from being enchanted to being as it merely is; and, since the narrator has the misfortune of living through interesting times, events of world historical importance are drawn into the mix. None of these Big Events are conveyed with cinematic flourish, which is to the book's benefit. On the contrary, Petterson makes the narrator speak in spare, measured prose that does not bubble with emotion but rather shows only the slightest hints of superficial movement--even if there are far deeper churnings beneath. We are allowed, or goaded by piqued curiosity, to flesh out what the narrator omits or only gestures toward.
The book's title itself provides an example of this. Throughout the her account, the narrator repeats her desire to go to Siberia, via the Siberian Railway. She has read about, and seen pictures of both, she tells us, and the names of the towns there enchant her. Later she adds to this fascination a desire for the warm clothing of Siberia, and their wooden houses. However, though the desire to drop everything and head to Siberia recurs throughout the novel, it is neither explicitly explained nor fulfilled. It is just there, slipped into the stream of images presented by the narrator, and is presented as such. The reader must sift through the rest to give it a meaning that Petterson does not write large--in short, the reader must read the book, and consider its narration, to get at the significance of Siberia for the narrator. Likewise with much of the early 20th century's main currents: Nazism, Bolshevism, and the middle way between them. The narrator has something to say about each, but she is not forthcoming. You must listen to her closely.
Besides being rich enough to reward inquisitive readers, the writing in To Siberia is masterfully rendered--a credit to both Petterson and his translator, Anne Born. But the weight of the words, or their intensity, is very disperse, and builds in resonance in echoes. That is, it is difficult to find an exemplary passage. All the same, there is something of the overall force of the text in the following passage, where the narrator describes her mother's interaction with the occupying soldiers:
"She was half a meter shorter than most of them, but she was as thin and sharp as a knife and her gaze was so blue that they looked right through it and could not see themselves reflected, and then they grew dizzy and naked with uncertainty in their eyes."
The book is dotted with gems like this as beaches are pebbled with sand.
The formal structure of To Siberia has two defining characteristics. The first is that it is an extended collection of imagistic memories, recounted either in the present or in the past. The second is that it is divided into three sections, each one anchored in a specific period of the narrator's life, and each providing a specific center of gravity for the recountings that take place in them. Every image is retold from the point of view of the sixty year old woman that the narrator has become, but this retelling is inflected around a period of life that is encapsulated in one of the sections. The first concerns the narrator's childhood, and it is in it that the reader encounters the idyllic scene where she and her brother go to sleep on the back of cows. It is also before the Germans invade Denmark. The second section recounts the narrator's teenage years, and is during the German occupation. It is in this period that much of Jesper's development takes place, and it is here that you learn that he dies young. Through the clever formal structure of the novel's shuffling of time, you are never quite sure if he will be shot as he works to sabotage Nazi operations or if he outlives the war. The third section deals with the narrator's life in the immediate postwar period, and her travels around Scandinavia--with her young adulthood, and concludes her passage out of youth.
I found the second section, about the German's occupation, to be the most compelling, if only because of the brooding fear that something awful might happen at any moment. And the disjointed relation of events that the narrator gives certainly adds to the suspense. But in the end the war is treated as only one more stage, neither the singular end or defining moment of the narrator's life. It affects her, yes, but it does not destroy her, and there is a bit of relentless hope in understanding this.
The passage beyond youthfulness, and its intensity and lightness, is where To Siberia ends. It acknowledges the callouses of age, the wounds that time wears into our psyches and the fact that many of us continue in spite of them, but it does so without affirming these things with a trite meaning. And while doing all this, it unfolds deliberately, beautifully, sadly.
While planning his escape from New York City, JAKE DAVIS studies philosophy at the New School of Social Research.