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.

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.

RATING 6 / 10