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Book: Out Stealing Horses

06/11/2005: Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, trs Anne Born - review in The Independent and Telegraph

06/12/2005 :: The Independent, 6 November 2005
By Paul Binding

In November 1999, in the forest country of eastern Norway, a 67-year-old widower, Trond Sander, making a new home for himself with just his mongrel-bitch for company, encounters for the first time his nearest human neighbour. Their similarities in situation and temperament are remarkable. Like our narrator, Lars Haug lives alone with his dog, is laconic, suspicious, practical, self-sufficient. To his surprise, their meeting sends Trond back in memory to July 1948 when he, a city-boy, was summering with his father in a cabin in a forest clearing. His constant and compelling companion then was a boy his own age, Jon, who wanted the two of them to be together the whole time, no matter the hour of day or night, doing whatever adventurous things he could think up. One morning Jon arrived at Trond's cabin demanding they go "out stealing horses". How could Trond refuse, even though he didn't know what he'd let himself in for or that he'd be tangling with the locality's biggest landowner? For the 15-year-old the criminality only enhanced the mysteries and beauties of the forest morning, which redeemed all discomforts and dangers, so much so that he felt his very identity change: "unnamed, I floated around, looking at the world... and felt it strangely illuminated and glassily beautiful."

Saying, "There's something I want to show you," Jon led him to a goldfinch's nest: "I had seen many nests, but never such a tiny one, so light, so perfectly formed of moss and feathers." To Trond's horrified disbelief, Jon proceeded to smash every egg and to crush the little nest to powder, while delivering inhuman sounds from a face like a "chalk-white mask".

This vandalism turned out to be less an excursion into gratuitous evil than a deliberate enactment of the destructiveness inherent in life, counterbalancing a dreadful familial experience of Jon's own, as yet unknown to Trond. Unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other throughout this intricately worked novel. Back in 1999 Trond's recollections make him appreciate who his new neighbour is: this fellow-hermit is Lars, the younger brother of his vanished former leader in boyish daredevilry.

Nor was Jon's revelation of the human capacity for both grief and wanton cruelty all that summer 1948 brought Trond. It taught him about Norwegian sufferings that, as a younger boy, he'd simply taken for granted, during the German occupation over only three years before. And it also taught him lessons about his own father - a man he looked up to and urgently loved - and through him about adult sexuality which often lays such insupportable burdens. As readers learn early in Trond's reconstructions, this summer contained his last sightings of his two heroes, Jon and Dad, both embodiments of malehood. And the psychic desolation caused by the second loss was the greater for its intimate connection with the first.

Two of Per Petterson's novels have already been published to acclaim in Britain, To Siberia and In the Wake. Both derive from an appalling loss of his own (in middle age, when already an established writer), of parents and siblings in a ferry-fire. The second book delineates with a powerful delicacy the struggle to bear the unbearable. Out Stealing Horses shares with its predecessors their paradoxical meeting-up of highly articulate yet limpid prose and conscious artistry (the construction is of the Chinese-box kind) with intractable-seeming material, any confrontation with which partakes of the atavistic.

The very title in the original - Ut og stjæle hester - surprised Norwegian readers with the rural rawness of the wording, a phrase, we will learn, with resonance from the war-time Resistance. Yet the backwoodsman Trond who surveys the physical challenges and pains of that distant July - and kinaesthetically evokes them - is, like his creator, a sophisticated man who reaches out to Dickens and Jean Rhys for parallels.

It would be reductive, and wholly against Petterson's intentions, to say that Trond spiritually profits from the tragic happenings of 1948 and from their remembrance. Or that they have indelibly scarred him. Rather he learned earlier than many that living is inextricable from experiencing fear, agony, heartbreak, and that, even after these, one can, amazingly, go on. Joys occur even if parenthesised by pain. Petterson's description of Trond and his father baring themselves to the falling rain, even doing handstands together in it, exhilarates, and with what quiet tenderness he recounts the boy and his mother out for the day over the border in Karlstad, two diffident Norwegians in a smart Swedish town. And even in a present uncomfortably close to old age Trond enjoys the unexpected visit of his good-hearted daughter.

Anne Born's sensitive translation does justice to an impressive novel of rare and exemplary moral courage, and commendably makes convincing the confrontations of different individuals, different milieux.

In November 1999, in the forest country of eastern Norway, a 67-year-old widower, Trond Sander, making a new home for himself with just his mongrel-bitch for company, encounters for the first time his nearest human neighbour. Their similarities in situation and temperament are remarkable. Like our narrator, Lars Haug lives alone with his dog, is laconic, suspicious, practical, self-sufficient. To his surprise, their meeting sends Trond back in memory to July 1948 when he, a city-boy, was summering with his father in a cabin in a forest clearing. His constant and compelling companion then was a boy his own age, Jon, who wanted the two of them to be together the whole time, no matter the hour of day or night, doing whatever adventurous things he could think up. One morning Jon arrived at Trond's cabin demanding they go "out stealing horses". How could Trond refuse, even though he didn't know what he'd let himself in for or that he'd be tangling with the locality's biggest landowner? For the 15-year-old the criminality only enhanced the mysteries and beauties of the forest morning, which redeemed all discomforts and dangers, so much so that he felt his very identity change: "unnamed, I floated around, looking at the world... and felt it strangely illuminated and glassily beautiful."

Saying, "There's something I want to show you," Jon led him to a goldfinch's nest: "I had seen many nests, but never such a tiny one, so light, so perfectly formed of moss and feathers." To Trond's horrified disbelief, Jon proceeded to smash every egg and to crush the little nest to powder, while delivering inhuman sounds from a face like a "chalk-white mask".

This vandalism turned out to be less an excursion into gratuitous evil than a deliberate enactment of the destructiveness inherent in life, counterbalancing a dreadful familial experience of Jon's own, as yet unknown to Trond. Unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other throughout this intricately worked novel. Back in 1999 Trond's recollections make him appreciate who his new neighbour is: this fellow-hermit is Lars, the younger brother of his vanished former leader in boyish daredevilry.

Nor was Jon's revelation of the human capacity for both grief and wanton cruelty all that summer 1948 brought Trond. It taught him about Norwegian sufferings that, as a younger boy, he'd simply taken for granted, during the German occupation over only three years before. And it also taught him lessons about his own father - a man he looked up to and urgently loved - and through him about adult sexuality which often lays such insupportable burdens. As readers learn early in Trond's reconstructions, this summer contained his last sightings of his two heroes, Jon and Dad, both embodiments of malehood. And the psychic desolation caused by the second loss was the greater for its intimate connection with the first.
Two of Per Petterson's novels have already been published to acclaim in Britain, To Siberia and In the Wake. Both derive from an appalling loss of his own (in middle age, when already an established writer), of parents and siblings in a ferry-fire. The second book delineates with a powerful delicacy the struggle to bear the unbearable. Out Stealing Horses shares with its predecessors their paradoxical meeting-up of highly articulate yet limpid prose and conscious artistry (the construction is of the Chinese-box kind) with intractable-seeming material, any confrontation with which partakes of the atavistic.

The very title in the original - Ut og stjæle hester - surprised Norwegian readers with the rural rawness of the wording, a phrase, we will learn, with resonance from the war-time Resistance. Yet the backwoodsman Trond who surveys the physical challenges and pains of that distant July - and kinaesthetically evokes them - is, like his creator, a sophisticated man who reaches out to Dickens and Jean Rhys for parallels.

It would be reductive, and wholly against Petterson's intentions, to say that Trond spiritually profits from the tragic happenings of 1948 and from their remembrance. Or that they have indelibly scarred him. Rather he learned earlier than many that living is inextricable from experiencing fear, agony, heartbreak, and that, even after these, one can, amazingly, go on. Joys occur even if parenthesised by pain. Petterson's description of Trond and his father baring themselves to the falling rain, even doing handstands together in it, exhilarates, and with what quiet tenderness he recounts the boy and his mother out for the day over the border in Karlstad, two diffident Norwegians in a smart Swedish town. And even in a present uncomfortably close to old age Trond enjoys the unexpected visit of his good-hearted daughter.

Anne Born's sensitive translation does justice to an impressive novel of rare and exemplary moral courage, and commendably makes convincing the confrontations of different individuals, different milieux. 

© 2005 Independent News and Media Limited

Review:
Clover Stroud, Telegraph

Novelist Per Petterson's deeply atmospheric writing about his native Norway has rightfully won him numerous critical awards.

Isolation and loss of innocence are themes that he returns to frequently in his work, and the concise beauty of his prose movingly captures the Norwegian landscape and rural way of life. In his latest novel, Petterson tells the story of Trond, a middle-aged man looking back on a series of life-changing childhood events that have enforced his own sense of adult isolation.

The bleak subject matter is elevated by the poetry of Petterson's writing, and the quietly unfolding plot acts as a vehicle for his vivid descriptions of the country.  Readers feel the snow-covered countryside and scent of new-felled cedar as keenly as the writer clearly did. This stunning novel will tell you more about the Norwegian countryside and psyche than the most enthusiastically well-informed guidebook.

Extract
"And then the horses were there. I heard their hard breathing, and the vibration in the trees grew stronger, and the sound of the hooves filled my head, and when I could just about see the muzzle of the nearest one beneath me, I slid off the branch with my legs stiffly to my sides, and I let go and landed on the horse's back a bit too close to its neck, and its shoulder bones hit me in the crotch and sent a jet of nausea up into my throat. It looked so simple when Zorro did it in the film, but now tears began to flow. The horse tossed its head wildly and accelerated into a full gallop and together we thundered off among the tree trunks."

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005

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