November 4, 2012

Down and out in Oslo

“It’s Fine By Me” by Per Petterson (Graywolf Press, 208 pages, $22)

“It’s Fine By Me” by Per Petterson (Graywolf Press, 208 pages, $22)

If you were asked to name Norwegian writers, your list might begin and end with Henrik Ibsen, not because there aren’t other names to put on the list, but because readers of the English language are not often exposed to them. Even Scandinavian Nobel Prize winners are not household names in the United States.

However, one Norwegian Nobel Laureate, Knut Hamsun (“Hunger,” “Mysteries,” “Pan”), influenced many 20th-century writers, including Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway. Hamsun was at the forefront of such modern writing techniques as stream of consciousness and flashbacks.

Fast-forward to the present day, and add Norwegian author Per Petterson to the list of writers influenced by Hamsun.

“If you’re a Norwegian writer, you are not visible in the world. The door of the English language is very hard to open for a Norwegian writer,” stated Petterson in a Washington Post interview. But Petterson knocked on that door in 2005 when his novel “Out Stealing Horses” was translated into English. The door opened widely, as the novel hit best-seller lists and garnered international awards.

Petterson’s 1992 book, “It’s Fine By Me,” has recently been translated into English by Don Bartlett and published in the United States by Graywolf Press. The novel is set in Norway from 1965 to 1970, during the time of the Vietnam War, and invokes the unrest, anxiety and disrespect for authority many young people felt during those years.

At the age of 13, Audun Sletton moves with his mother, older sister and younger brother from the countryside to an outlying working-class neighborhood of Oslo. His vagabond father is spoken of as if he were dead.

We first meet Audun as a brash but secretive teenager in a new school, defying authority from the start. He reacts with hostility and belligerence when asked about his life before moving to Oslo. He refuses to remove his ever-present sunglasses, erecting a barrier between himself and a world that had not earned the right to see any part of his soul: “I decided to wear them at all times, at least during the day. I liked the distance they created.”

Petterson contends that he hates plots and doesn’t write with a plot in mind. Instead he relies on the strength and precision of his sentences, allowing the story to form as he writes. Indeed, “It’s Fine By Me” offers more a series of vignettes than a linear plot. The seemingly disjointed scenes in Audun’s tumultuous life are set out in a jumbled chronology that provides clues to his rebellious outlook.

Voice is important to Petterson. He uses mostly first-person narration along with Hamsun’s technique of interior monologue to keep the reader tied to his main character’s thinking and perspective. And Audun’s perspective is mostly turned inward.

As the story jumps ahead we see Audun at 18, listening to Jimi Hendrix, reading Jack London and Hemingway, and dreaming of becoming a writer himself. He values time alone in his mother’s kitchen, rolling the perfect cigarette and brewing fresh pots of coffee.

Family relationships permeate Petterson’s stories, and the author’s personal history provides insight into the pervasive references to family loss in his writing. Four members of his family, including both parents and a brother, died in 1990 while passengers on a Scandinavian ferry that caught fire.

Petterson’s books illustrate that one can lose family members in various ways, not only by physical death. Audun experiences physical loss in the death of his brother, revealed early in the book, but also emotional loss in the uneasy absence and the occasional frightening reappearance of his alcoholic father.

A current of danger and tension runs throughout the book, and the nerve center of that tension is Audun’s now-absent father. He is variously described by Audun’s mother as a stylish man, by Audun’s sister as always drunk, and by Audun himself as “the only person who really scares me.” The father appears in a series of flashbacks that punctuate the narrative of Audun’s teenage years.

The frequent dizzying jumps between the present and the past are disconcerting but as pieces of the family history are revealed, the mosaic begins to form and provides a fuller picture of Audun’s inner struggles. The father-son relationship is key to understanding Audun, who doesn’t want to admit even to himself how important and how impossibly broken this relationship is.

After a nightmarish encounter with his drunken father, Audun escapes into the countryside. He is taken in by strangers and spends an idyllic week in this otherworldly atmosphere of peace, acceptance and rest. It is a stark contrast to his normal life but only a brief respite that ends abruptly.

“I’m supposed to be the tough guy in class. … I stare back, they think I am strange, it’s fine by me, they’re like mist, I hardly see them,” he says.

He struggles through his teenage years, grappling with the legacy of an abusive father and daily life in a gritty urban atmosphere where violence is an ever-present menace. Gloom and apprehension lurk in every aspect of his life: at school, on the job, in encounters with neighborhood gangs, and in memories of his father.

Despite the melancholy world he inhabits, Audun survives and matures.

As the 1970s emerge, so does a new outlook. His family dynamics change, and he can envision a more promising future.

The narrative ends on a redemptive note for Audun, as that which was closed tight to the world now begins to open and allows in a glimmer of hope. We are grateful for the glint of light shining from the door that Per Petterson has left ajar for us.

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