Arvid is 37-years-old and about to get divorced. He doesn’t want to, but he knows his wife has had enough of him. The knowledge that his life is about to careen off course is crushing; when he receives a call that his mother has been diagnosed with stomach cancer, Arvid can hardly function at all.
Norwegian author Per Petterson’s latest novel describes just a few days in bitterly cold November 1989, but the landscape of Arvid’s memory encompasses his entire life up to that point. In his despair and frustration at losing control over his life, Arvid is like a rudderless fishing boat; he cannot move forward in a straight line, but his efforts to retrace his steps also fail.
Her diagnosis certain, Arvid’s mother retreats from Oslo, where she has lived for 40 years, to her native Denmark. Arvid follows, making the familiar ferry crossing, unsure of how to proceed, and unsure of how he will find his way once his mother is gone. Memories of summers past spent in Denmark overlay Arvid’s journey to find his mother, and to communicate with her once they’re reunited. Her actions are unpredictable, as she also attempts to say farewell to important places and people in her life. Arvid wants to be a part of this intimate goodbye, but doesn’t know how—and his mother doesn’t seem to want him to tag along in any case.
Petterson’s prose, heavily autobiographical and translated by Charlotte Barslund, has a stately quality to it. Present day events have triggered this journey through the mysteries of Arvid’s memory, and his struggle to piece together the events in his life that have led to this bleak time is unsettling. Arvid drifts a bit in time, and wonders how various actions have led him to this crossroads. He has a sense that everyone around him is moving in the correct direction in their own lives, while he is moving against the tide, without a clue how to correct his course. Arvid fears that the anonymous crowd passing him by in the city can tell at a glance that he has lost his way.
Arvid chain smokes, drinks too much, and dwells on formative moments: his decision to leave university, earning him a slap in the face from his mother; his relationship as a young union worker with a schoolgirl, the two lovers finding everything in the world within each other; the death of his older brother, whom he barely knew. Boiling water for coffee before dawn as his sweetheart sleeps on in the other room, Arvid remembers being awake absurdly early with his mother as a small child and cherishing her kitchen habits as she heated milk for hot chocolate.
Arvid is consumed by his own melancholy, and fails to reconnect with his mother as she wraps up loose ends in her own life. He wants to be with her and to be there for her, but his personal inner miseries and regrets make this impossible.
As he grew up and attempted to set himself apart from several brothers and his father, Arvid has failed in making a name for himself and succeeded merely in distancing himself from his entire family. The realization that his strength of character resulted only in this relative estrangement, and not in becoming a man his family could be proud of wears heavily on Arvid. He’s 37-years-old, says his mother, “but I wouldn’t call him a grown up. That would be an exaggeration.”
The timing of Petterson’s story is purposeful; the fall of the Berlin Wall is imminent. Arvid’s musings are full of past meetings with fellow communists, and his desire to be a true part of the worker’s movement. Arvid’s frequent embarrassment with the man he has failed to become is endearing. Anyone who has been disappointed with their own failure to impress their loved ones, and ultimately satisfy themselves, will appreciate Arvid’s state of mind and Petterson’s novel as a whole.