Thursday, May 15, 2008

Out Stealing Awards

Although Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is set in rural Norway and is a work of fiction in translation, it fits into a genre that readers of literary fiction will find familiar.

As in L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between (from which Petterson actually lifts a quote towards the end), as in John Banville's The Sea, we have an elderly man looking back on the events of a fateful summer when he was caught up in a web of events and powerful adult emotions that he is not yet equipped to deal with, and can only make sense of in retrospect. But whatever happened back then has left him emotionally stunted as an adult, and his only chance to heal his spirit is to finally make sense of it all.

The pivotal question, asked late in Out Stealing Horses, is whether its protagonist is the hero of his own life (the reference is lifted from Dickens' David Copperfield) or whether he abdicated that role to others. This certainly seems to be the case.

Petterson's novel shifts between three layers of time. Trond Sander, now 67 when the novel opens in 1999, has sold up all his possessions and moved to a secluded house in the far east of Norway where he intends to live out his days in solitude and simplicity. But an encounter with his neighbour, whom he recognises from his past bring memories flooding back of a fateful summer shortly after the war. Lars Haug, he realises, is the younger brother of his once best friend.

In 1948, 15 year old Trond is staying in a small cabin near the Swedish border with his father during the summer vacation. Ostensibly the trip is part holiday, part opportunity for a bit of father-son bonding.

Trond befriends Jon, the son of one of a neighbouring farmer, and the two are always off on outdoor adventures together. Very early one morning Jon invites his friend to come "Out stealing horses" (an expression which acquires other connotations in the book) but in this instance he just means riding the horses in a local farmer's field.

Later, while destroying a bird's nest, Jon suddenly seems to experience some sort of a breakdown, and it turns out that he left his hunting rifle at home forgetting to take the bullets out. Jon's two younger brothers fought over it, and Lars accidentally killed his twin brother. Trond never sees his friend again, as Jon disappears off to sea.

It strikes me that if a film were ever made of the novel (as I think must surely happen) it will be a whole different animal from the book. Films deal with sharply realised details, and close-ups. Petterson gives us only parts of the story, and then often in long distance shots, leaving space for us to create much of the story for ourselves. Trond gradually uncovers pieces of the story of his father's role in the Norwegian resistance during the war, and about the true nature of his relationship with Jon and Lars' mother. He also only later comes to realise why his father is so insistent that the trees around the cabin must be felled, and the logs floated downriver to a sawmill in Sweden, even though it is completely the wrong season to do this (the river too low to float timber effectively, the trunks heavy with sap.)

The novel is richly atmospheric with evocative descriptions of landscape careful descriptions of the practicalities of rural life.

Ann Born's translation captures the narrator's voice very well*, the slight hesitance at the beginning as he searches for a way to tell his story, the long run on sentences when he becomes excited, the terse exchanges of dialogue.

The novel has deservedly garnered plenty of accolades. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award 2006, last year's IMPAC Dublin Prize, and was a top ten New York Times Notable Book.

(*I must point out though that I found some grammatically questionable sentences in places and am surprised proofreaders did not pick these up.)


Anonymous said...

I hate translation :P

bibliobibuli said...

and for some reason i really hate a blast of negativity like this as the first comment on a post.

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with a translation if it's done well. Sometimes I supect a well-translated book can be an improvement on the original novel.

- poppadumdum

Anonymous said... else is one to read a book in a language one doesn't speak, if not via a translation?

- poppadumdum

Yusuf/Martin said...

Unfortunately many of us are not multi-lingual, not only that we don't know many languages either, and in my case may be sub-lingual.

Because of this we, the mono, or sub-lingual have to read in translation and personally I have enjoyed many many works from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Yukio Mishima, Jean Cocteau and beyond.

Of course its better to read in the original language if you can, not all of us are blessed that way.

Many people cannot read comics - think about that.

Yusuf/Martin said...

ps I do hate anonymous comments its as if the owners of their comments are too cowardly to put their own name to them....grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

bookseller said...

Thank goodness for translation. Imagine missing out on Murakami, Ibsen, Schlink, Kundera, Kafka, d S-Exupery... What will we be without access to them???

dreamer idiot said...

Not liking books in translation is one thing, but hating them is like saying you don't want to get to know another person, just because he or she speaks a different language or has a different culture.

Nice review, Sharon. I'll look out for this book.

animah said...

Sharon, great review. I like the way you liken the book to a film - the close ups and the long shots.

To add to Bookseller's list - Marquez, Borges, Dosteyovsky (have I spelt that right). And think about the books written in English translated into Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish ... it really helps the world understand each other better.

Ignore Anon who has nothing better to do but be childishly provocative. Jane Sunshine, lend him your Hungry Caterpillar.

bibliobibuli said...

i think the fist anon was just stirring things up ... and you guys are write, what a poorer life we'd have without translation. i am thinking now i have a lot more works in translation i'd really love to read. (inc schlink's new book which i have bought!)

shalyzad said...

Translators have to be strong in their words and can read the personal tunes of the original writer. For some malay translated novels I think Adibah Amin did very well.- shalz

bibliobibuli said...

animah - yes, good idea to lend anon "the very hungry caterpillar"!

shalyzad - adibah's translation of "rancau sepanjang jalan" is wonderful. i just ordered the book via abebooks because i need to reread it

Anonymous said...

Hi like hungry caterpillars. Especially if they eat people.

James Abela said...

My son has a very simple attitude to bed-time reading, the more, the better!
His first trick was to find the thickest book possible, when he realised that I wasn't going to read the whole book, he then negotiated that I should read 3 stories and now his latest scheme is that he wants to do stickers in his sticker book and then have a story...Of course deep down, I am secretly pleased that he's getting into books :-)

Shalyzad said...

Sharon - Thats a good novel by adibah . To correct you, it is 'Ranjau' not ' Rancau'.

aliqot said...

We would indeed be the poorer without translations.I'll put this book on my 'look out for' list. (Though I'll be on the watch for errors. ;@) )