In June, Per Petterson’s novel Out Stealing Horses won the 100,000-euro International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, said to be the world’s largest for a single work of fiction. Petterson, little known outside his native Norway, apparently beat out the likes of Julian Barnes, J.M. Coetzee and — God be praised — Cormac McCarthy.
Three cheers for the judges, say I. Out Stealing Horses is a marvelous book.
Trond, the narrator, is 67 years old. His wife died three years earlier in a car crash, and his children by a previous marriage are both grown. Trond has come to live out his days in a cabin near a village in a remote part of Norway, a village much like the one where he and his father spent summers when Trond was a teenager.
As it happens, his nearest neighbor turns out to be someone who not only lived in the same village Trond and his father visited but who also figured crucially during the particular summer that is the focus of Trond’s reminiscence. That summer was the last time Trond ever saw his father, with whom he had been extraordinarily close.
Trond relates his tale antiphonally, memory bringing his thoughts back to the present almost as often as present circumstances prompt him to remember. The effect is teasingly elliptical:
“People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decisions you have made have turned you into who you are. What they do is they fill in with their own feelings and opinions and assumptions, and they compose a new life which has precious little to do with yours, and that lets you off the hook.”
And that is what one finds oneself doing as one reads — filling in the lacunae in the narrative with one’s own feelings, opinions, assumptions. One grows close to Trond, not because one identifies with him exactly, but rather because his evasions are so much like one’s own.
Trond’s best friend in the village is a boy his own age called Jon:
“He would never come inside, maybe because of my father. He never spoke to my father. Never said hello to him. Just looked down when they passed each other. … Then my father would stop and turn round to look at him and say:
“`Wasn’t that Jon?’
`Yes,’ I said.
`What’s wrong with him?’ said my father every time, as if embarrassed, and each time I said:
`I don’t know.'”
Jon comes over early one morning to fetch Trond: “`Are you coming?’ he said. `We’re going out stealing horses.'”
They’re actually just going to break into a farmer’s paddock and ride them, but in their imaginations they’re rustlers in the Old West. (Later, a logger tells Trond of his father’s exploits during the war — when Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany — and explains that when his father arrived in the village they knew who he was because of the prearranged words he spoke: ” `Are you coming? We’re going out stealing horses.'”)
Jon behaves very strangely that morning. He takes Trond up into a tree and shows him a goldcrest’s nest, “perfectly formed of moss and feathers. And it did not hang. It hovered.”
There is a single tiny egg in the nest. Jon takes it out and lets it drop, then crushes the nest to dust:
“Jon’s face was a chalk-white mask with an open mouth, and from that mouth came sounds that made my blood run cold, I had never heard anything like it; throaty noises like an animal I had never seen and had no wish to see.
When Trond returns home and tells his father, his father asks him, “Do you want to know what they’re talking about at the shop?'”
Something terrible has happened, and Trond will never see Jon again.
A lesser novel would gather up all the dangling threads of narrative — there are plenty more besides those mentioned — and tie them into a nice neat bow of an ending. Not this one. It is, in fact, Petterson’s refusal to do precisely this that makes his novel so lifelike. After all, life boasts far more loose ends than pat endings.