The Norwegian author Per Petterson burst onto the international scene last year with his novel Out Stealing Horses, which won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and appeared on all kinds of best-of-the-year lists, including The New York Times’ and L.A. Weekly’s. I’m joking when I say burst because Petterson, the author of five novels, has been plying his trade for a while. His “new” work, To Siberia, is new only in the States — it was published in Britain in 1998, meaning that American publishers inexplicably passed on publishing an already translated novel. But To Siberia is set in Denmark, and apparently no one in America wants to read a book set in Denmark. Never mind that it is as lovely and meaningful and memorable as Out Stealing Horses. Or that, thanks to Graywolf Press, you now can read it in “American,” or at least in a version printed in America, and that you will want to.
To Siberia is set during World War II, when the German occupation begins. Siberia is the longed-for destination of a young girl known as Sistermine to her brother Jesper, who is older and involved in the Resistance. But before all that, there is simply the extended family, a father with career and financial difficulties, a piously Christian mother, a grandfather with psychological issues, and Jesper, with whom Sistermine is, in a way, in love. Pure love, though not necessarily a pure love. Like Out Stealing Horses, To Siberia is a book of memory and melancholy. The reader is drawn quickly into its world, welcomed and yet held at a distance — the distance inherent in (and perhaps inherited by) its characters. The war brings suspense and intrigue, a good thing but not the thing. That would be the space between Sistermine and her desire to connect — with Jesper, especially, and other family members; with friends, both childhood and adult; with Siberia (or what it represents); with a place closer to home in which she feels at home. Sadness pervades, but, in its way, it is a beautiful disconnection.
Petterson responded via e-mail from his farm outside Oslo.
L.A. WEEKLY:Whether it comes from a young girl or an old man, your narrative voice has a similarly measured tone. It feels as though you’ve worked hard (in a good way) to get to that voice. There is also a strong sense of tenderness and melancholy in both characters/books, which may be related.
PETTERSON: After my two first books, written in the third person, and after having read Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams, I made a decision. What I wanted was a voice, that my “stories” should come from one distinct place that gave it a certain urgency — although, as you say, it may be measured. The narrator in To Siberia is not the girl but the older woman of 60 years, and the point is that this voice should be able to move back and forth in time. The very important thing is that the voice is a written voice, it does not speak as we do in everyday life. It is a literary voice, and in that way I can make it many voices, use it in many ways.
Talk about place in your novels, both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the local and the faraway. Sistermine longs for a distant land, and Jesper gets there — and doesn’t return, which is its own kind of peculiar pain. The nearby island community holds special interest. Aunt Kari doesn’t know where “home” is. Others dream of Barcelona. And of course the Germans, both soldiers and pen pals ...
Place, landscape is more than important to me, it is vital, whether it be the coast of Denmark in To Siberia, or the forest of Trond T. in Out Stealing Horses, or the more urban in my new novel, I Curse the River of Time. But it never has a symbolic meaning. It is simply there, and that is why it is so important, I think. If you grow up seeing trees around you every day, you will see yourself in a different way than if you lived most of your life by the sea. If you long for another place, another landscape, what you long for is something specific, something that gives you hope, even if those things that you long for do not exist. Perhaps you even know that. It doesn’t matter.
World War II plays a prominent role in both To Siberia and Out Stealing Horses. What is the source of your interest in this period? Is it true that the story of To Siberia is based on your mother’s? Has it been working on you for a very long time?
I have in fact not been that interested in World War II as such, but my parents’ generation lived through it — some fought in the Resistance during the German occupation — and the stories were everywhere around us when I grew up. So if their lives hold a fascination for you, the war is unavoidable. And yes, the book is (very) loosely based on my mother’s life, although most things have been changed and made up; but Sistermine in the novel follows my mother’s life in time and space and place, you could say.
Your novels are fairly traditional, and you obviously work hard to keep your prose clean and simple. Is this something you care deeply about? Which writers do you admire in this way, and emulate? And what is it specifically about their writing?
Are they? Traditional? Maybe they are. I haven’t thought about it in that way. But I do work hard to make my prose, not clean perhaps, but clear, precise; what’s going on precisely, how does it feel, what do things look like, which brand, which color, how does your body move, in which landscape, and so forth. Do not use the wrong size of words, do not underestimate the reader, trust her capacity for empathy, you don’t need to tell her everything. Sometimes people say, “You’re so good at writing between the lines.” It’s a popular way of trying to say something about the effect of fiction, but it has become a cliché, and turns the focus away from the point of what is on the lines. It’s what’s on the lines that causes the impact; that’s where the writer’s work is, and if the sentences are clear and have something important to tell, the reader may remember them forever, and they will make a difference.
I have mentioned Jayne Anne Phillips. Hemingway, if you read him very young. Poets: the Swede Tomas Tranströmer. I could mention Grace Paley, Richard Ford. And many European writers, of course, but I don’t think I would say that I emulate them. What I do carry with me are the voices and the clarity of their sentences and the strong desire to do what they do, to move, as I have been moved.
Harvill first published To Siberia in Britain some 10 years ago. Why did it take so long to be published here, do you think? (I don’t mean literally, but, rather, culturally.) And what do you think of the comments made by Horace Engdahl, the Nobel official, about the lack of translation in the U.S.?
But there is a lack of translation in the U.S.! Its door is not an easy one to open. And of course there must be a reason for this, whether it be some kind of self-satisfaction, ignorance or, the most obvious one, that English-language literature is so vast; USA, Canada, England, several African countries, literature from India, from New Zealand, Australia and so forth, so it would seem that you have no need for more. But you do. It is just difficult to see. But to go from that, and further on to say as Horace Engdahl did, that because of this “weakness,” you have no serious contenders for the Nobel Prize? That’s just rubbish.
I wonder about the power of fiction, not just on the reader but on the writer as well. I’m thinking about your novel In the Wake, and writing’s power to transcend, or at least to keep at bay demons and dangers.
Some say that there is a power in fiction that has a healing effect for the writer. I don’t know about that. It may, but that is not how I see it. In the novel In the Wake, Arvid Jansen, my “hero,” lost most of his family in a ship fire. Something similar happened to me, but the novel was published 10 years after the catastrophe (159 people died). The healing, if you could call it that, was already done. I was at peace with this. On the reader, fiction obviously can have such an effect, and that’s good. But fiction should also upset the reader, so that she does not fall asleep in her life; not only search for harmony but also friction. For the writer, I don’t believe in healing. I do believe you will find things you didn’t know were there and surprise yourself. But for me the power of fiction is the joy I experience when I am able to give form to my material, make art, and then the question of demons, whether you have them or not, feels a little beside the point.
TO SIBERIA | By Per Petterson | Graywolf Press | 256 pages | $22 hardcover