Books

Per Petterson's Tales of Innocence and Experience

Petterson's closely-knit stories sadly and beautifully reveal the passage from boyish innocence to "manhood", and show us what it means to be a man.


Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes

Publisher: Graywolf
Length: 128 pages
Author: Per Petterson
Price: $14.00
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-04
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Curiously, as gender distinctions have become increasingly untenable, they've also become more insistent. Not long ago Barnes & Noble published a campy book by Michael Powell called The Guide for Guys; and for several years now Esquire Magazine has been publishing its seasonal Big Black Book which, despite the emphasis on fashion, is also replete with advice and instruction on how to be a man.

As I was reading Per Petterson's newly-translated debut collection of short stories, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, I couldn't help thinking that it, too, might serve as a guidebook for "for old boys and young men" (as the subtitle of Powell's book reads). Not because it's prescriptive, but because Petterson's closely-knit stories sadly and beautifully reveal the passage from boyish innocence to "manhood", and show us, whether we care to see or not, what it means to be a man.

Each of the ten stories, set just outside of Oslo in the '60s, revolves around the experiences of young Arvid Jansen. Though tinged with sadness, the stories are never tragic. As vignettes, they tend more toward portraiture than philosophical argument, and while the tales can, of course, be analyzed, doing so almost feels inappropriate, like looking a gift horse in the mouth. Petterson's stories, I would suggest, are meant to be felt rather than analyzed under the lens of what Leslie Fiedler called our "hermeneutics of suspicion".

Though it's clear where Petterson's sympathies lie, rarely does he himself cast judgement upon the events that take place; neither condoning nor condemning, he allows the reader to bear witness to them. At times, the stories are almost uncanny. On the one hand, the names and geography will be unknown to most readers; on the other, the experiences of the protagonist will be intimately familiar. Such as the death of patriarchs, the bickering of adults, sudden unexpected discoveries -- as when Arvid is given his first harsh lesson about sexuality by a boy only a couple years older than him.

"When will you get it, you moron," Bjorn shouted. "People fuck, or else there wouldn't be any babies!'"

"Only pigs fuck!" Arvid screamed back.

"But they were right, he knew that now, for he had asked Dad, and although Dad had coughed and looked away and both of them blushed, he didn't deny it. It was the only explanation, but it was a lot to take..."

Unlike his seemingly fearless father, Arvid is constantly afraid. In the earliest stories he regularly wets the bed and has paralyzing nightmares about "animals with sharp teeth". "Arvid screams, everything whirls around him, he is dizzy, and he sinks to the floor, and then his dad enters, steps right through the crocodile and it's gone at once, and Dad grabs Arvid underneath the arms and lifts him up. Arvid falls asleep at once."

There are women in Arvid's life; he has an older sister, Gry, and a mother who is nurturing and sympathetic, yet it's the masculine that commands Arvid's attention, perhaps because even at his young age (in one of the stories we are told he is six and a half, in another he is eight), he is intuitively aware that he lives in a patriarchal society. Throughout, Arvid consciously and subconsciously reflects upon the roles of men and women. When Arvid's Granddad dies in "The King Is Dead", and his Uncle Rolf is too upset to be a pall-bearer at the funeral, Arvid's Aunt Kari must fill in "even though she was a woman".

So much of literature and popular culture is peopled by heroes and villains that it's refreshing to read a work without them. Many of the characters, Arvid's father and mother in particular, are heroic but not heroes; and Arvid's archenemy, the neighbor he calls "Fatso", is pathetic rather than villainous. If at the end of that eponymous story Arvid decides that he will never speak to the man again, it's not because the man was mean or spiteful, but because he violates one of the defining codes of manhood.

"Fatso was crying, that was the sound Arvid had heard, and it was the worst thing he had ever experienced, for he had never seen a grown man cry." Real men do not do this: "you just had to take things as they came without whining, Dad said, and Arvid agreed."

Trying to hold back tears, and failing to, is a subtle and recurring theme in these tales.

"Hi, Arvid, you're up and not crying? That's good. Today we're gonna get ourselves a few mackerel."

When Arvid finds a baby bullfinch -- small and vulnerable and so like himself -- we are told that "he held the bullfinch in his hand. It was so small, it was soft and warm. He could feel its heart beating against his fingers and he thought: Birds have a heart that beats!"

He tries to rescue the sickly bird, "but it fell again. His mind went blank. He couldn't leave, couldn't pretend he hadn't seen, but staying there didn't help either, for the bullfinch couldn't stand. He picked it up and threw it high in the air to see if it would fly, but it plummeted to the ground. He stood watching, it was red against the green grass, and then he started to cry."

Hearing him, his father comes to his aid. "Dad bent down, picked up the bullfinch and said: 'Move away now, turn round and close your eyes'. Arvid took a few steps, half-turned, but did not close his eyes. From the corner of one eye he saw his dad raise his arm and hurl the bird against the wall."

The saddest moment in the book may be Arvid's most triumphant. The story begins with Arvid's father teaching him to box. "Never let them push you around, always give as good as you get, don't put up with anything, it will come back to bite you. And if you have to, hit first, just to set an example."

To get started, his father tries to provoke him with insults. "But Arvid wouldn't get angry, he just felt sad, and one time when he wouldn't hit his dad on the chin although he stuck it out as far as he could, his dad was so annoyed he pushed Arvid in the chest and sent him flying under the sofa."

We almost forget about this incident when Arvid, his Dad and Uncle Rolf set off on a fishing trip. Things do not go as planned and manly tempers flare under the influence of alcohol as old arguments are reignited. The two adults briefly exchange blows, both physical and verbal, and when Arvid's father is about to seriously beat Uncle Rolf, we are told: "Dad looked dangerous, with his shoulders raised and fists clenched in front of him and his chin stuck out like a knife. Arvid took aim and punched that chin for all he was worth, and his dad snapped back and shook his head and turned, but Arvid was running up the stairs to the first floor."

In a surprising shift of roles, it will be Arvid who comforts his father. Arvid is not yet the man his father is, but like Telemachus next to Odysseus, he is close. Sadly, both Telemachus and Arvid are transformed from boys to men through acts of violence. Homer suggests that Telemachus is destined to be a great hero like his father because he has proven himself in battle, but Petterson's tone is more fatalistic than celebratory. He accepts reality, "but he felt strangely sad...".

Arvid promises himself that he will never do certain things adults do, but we know he will. We all do those things, breaking childhood promises to ourselves and stepping over the shards of our innocence to become what we fear and desire and, ultimately, what we must.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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