“That part of my life when I could turn the dreams to some use is behind me now. I am not going to change anything anymore.” — Out Stealing Horses
Trond Sander stands outside his home in rural Norway. He is an old man, 67, with a memory as long as his years. But not a flawless memory; his wife’s face, only three years buried, has faded from his mind, and though he’s aware of the events surrounding his father’s disappearance in the first years after the Second World War, he can’t quite fathom the reason. A stranger approaches, the first to intrude on his self-imposed solitude in some time.
After a brief conversation and the chance to reflect back in his cabin, he realizes that rather than a stranger, the man is a figure from his childhood, a coincidence so jarring that Trond remarks with deceptive yet characteristic simplicity, “if this had been something in a novel it would just have been irritating”. Of course, one can’t be expected to maintain perspective on such matters, and this incident, the catalyst for the extended voyage into memory that comprises the bulk of Per Petterson’s wonderful Out Stealing Horses, is certainly more arresting than irritating.
In an inspired move, Petterson emphasizes Trond’s alienation from the surrounding world through repeated references to film. Though an avid reader in the present, Trond spent his childhood watching movies, and so in a temporally counterintuitive conceit, the great books of the past fill his present and references to film evoke his past. Sharpening a saw, Trond reflects “I don’t know where I learned to do this. Presumably I have seen it on film; a documentary about the great forests or a feature film with a forestry setting.” Gazing off into the night, immediately after having met the man from his childhood, he says,
The light outside seems almost artificial, as in films I have seen; blue, staged, the source of light invisible, but each thing distinct, and at the same time seen through the same filter, or each thing made of the same substance. Even the dog is blue, it does not move; a clay model of a dog.
And despite his proclivity for the written word, after speaking to his dog Lyra in English, Trond realizes this is “something from a film I once saw, maybe Lassie from the cinema-going of my past … It was not from Dickens, though, I cannot recall any ‘good dog’ in his books”. The cumulative effect of these many references, appearing at regular intervals throughout the novel, is to suggest Trond’s recognition of his remove from reality, and also to underscore his earlier apprehension about the art form, which is to say the world, he finds himself in.
At the same time, it is fitting that Trond, living as a recluse, intentionally having cordoned himself off from the great mass of humanity, should find greater solace in the words of dead men than in the most pervasive art form of the present day. His anachronistic existence offers the stillness and quiet of a certain type of fiction at its best. It’s most fitting that the disruption of this tranquility — by a figure from his movie-loving past, no less — should be accompanied by that azure incandescence native to the silver screen. Trond’s most powerful allusion to movies comes when he describes boarding a passenger train and seeing his father for the final time, a receding figure on the platform:
I pressed my nose against the glass and gazed into the cloud of dust slowly rising outside and hiding my father in a whirl of grey and brown, and I did everything you are supposed to do in a situation like that, in such a scene … all this as if I had been thoroughly rehearsed in the film we have seen so often, where the fateful farewell in the crucial event and the lives of the protagonists are changed forever and take off in directions that are unexpected and not always nice, and the whole cinema audience knows just how it will turn out … But the point is that I did not know how things would turn out that day. No-one had told me!
This train ride back to civilization follows a lengthy stay in the wilderness. In 1948, Trond traveled with his father to a forest near the Swedish border on a logging expedition. His memories of that summer hold the key to his unresolved angst. With equal parts nostalgic longing and hesitant apprehension, Trond describes long days helping his father and a family friend work, interrupted by blissful respites of clumsily playing at stealing horses with a neighbor’s son. In the midst of these recollections comes an engrossing tale of his father’s involvement in the Norwegian anti-Nazi resistance, and though Out Stealing Horses is never remotely boring, these passages, along with the earlier scenes of botched horse theft, are both genuinely and surprisingly thrilling. It is to Petterson’s enormous credit that he is able to conjure stillness and bedlam with equal expertise.
The melancholy aroused by Trond’s memories stems not only from his father’s disappearance nor just from the calamity that brings an end to carefree childhood games, but also from an encounter he accidentally witnesses between his father and another adult. What Trond sees suggests hidden corners of his father’s existence that knowledge of his wartime heroism only begins to cast light on, and underscores the inescapable truth that no matter how well children may think they know their parents, it’s only in mutual adulthood that they can even begin to approach understanding. With only childhood memories to sift through, Trond can barely begin to appreciate who his father was and why he abandoned his family. The resulting resentment, simmering yet unarticulated, hangs over Trond’s life, and in the greatest tragedy in a novel filled with them, infects his relationships with his own children, as Petterson achingly portrays with a second intrusion into Trond’s solitary existence.
For a novel so focused on childhood memories, Out Stealing Horses admirably avoids sentimentality. The pleasant moments from Trond’s past are always depicted with an appropriately restrained degree of mirth and yearning. Likewise, even when describing the death of a young child, Petterson eschews excessive emotion and relates both the incident and its aftermath with steely calm. The apparent serenity of Trond’s present belies, or more accurately is caused, by the tumultuous past. Since his cabin provides an escape from the world, the emotional distance between the events of Trond’s past and his present recollections is entirely fitting. And yet, it can prove to be a mixed blessing.
Towards the end of the novel, Trond having grappled with the mysteries of his youth, Petterson pushes things a step further. Evoking L.P. Hartley, Trond reflects, “when someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way for most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not any more.” This sentiment, precisely placed at the point of maximal impact and beautifully juxtaposed with one of Trond’s final memories of his father, would provide an ideal ending. But it’s not the ending. A twenty-page coda follows, and though its contents offer some further illumination, Petterson maintains his emotional reticence to the point of diminishing returns. Fortunately, the novel’s cumulative effect easily survives this lone misstep.
Men with guns; men on horses. If Petterson’s set pieces didn’t already remind readers of Cormac McCarthy, his terse, poetic prose (minus McCarthy’s apocalyptic bombast) certainly would. Traces of J.M. Coetzee and W.G. Sebald are even more apparent, and Petterson is entirely successful at synthesizing his various influences into a style perfectly suited to his material. (A measure of praise should also be reserved for translator Anne Born.)
The winner of last year’s IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Out Stealing Horses is deserving of nearly every superlative lavished upon it. Thrilling when it wants to be, touching when it needs to be, the novel works as a tragic account of a disrupted childhood, as a haunting illustration of both the liberating and paralyzing effects of memory, and, yes, at times as an engaging adventure story. Throughout, Petterson manages to negotiate these discrepant objectives in a manner befitting the very best novelists working today.
Much of his earlier work is now available in translation and I’ll hurry to acquaint myself with it, as will many readers of this most impressive book. It would, after all, only be fitting if further insight into Trond Sander’s world can be gleaned from a foray into his creator’s past.