Book Review: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

If there was any doubt I am enthralled with foreign fiction, it is totally erased. The first four books I’ve read this year are translated works. There’s not a single weak one among them and Out Stealing Horses is among the strongest. It is yet one more reason why I need to quit limiting my books of the year to books published the year I read them.

Comparison is always dangerous but Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s approach and story kept bringing to mind both Philip Roth’s Everyman and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, two of my favorite books of the last several years. (If you’re not familiar with either of those works, do yourself a favor and read them.) True, throwing an author in with Robinson and Roth is high praise. Petterson deserves it.

First published in the U.S. in 2007 by a small, St. Paul-based publishing house, Out Stealing Horses won the 2003 Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Award. Its narrator, Trond Sander, has retired to a small cabin in rural Norway. While Trond intends to live the remainder of his life there alone, at an unhurried pace and in peace, he can’t help but contemplate his life so far. In particular, he thinks of the summer of 1948, which he spent with his father in a similar cabin near the Swedish border. That summer forever affected his life and that of his family and a neighboring family.

Translated by Anne Born, the book moves almost flawlessly between the present and 1948. Petterson’s sentence structure, frequently run ons, makes us feel as if we are listening in on Sander’s inner conversations, whether his present-day thought process or the flow of memory. In addition to slowly unfolding the tale as Robinson does in Gilead, the book also shares with that work and Everyman the core theme of exploring how we’ve lived our lives and certain events, including the seemingly routine, brought us to where we are today. You can’t help but think that in many of his ideas and feelings Trond, too, is an everyman, even if those ideas have never quite taken full shape in our own mind. It also looks at the public persona and the private person.

People like it when you tell them things, in suitable proportions, 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. No-one can touch you unless you yourself want them to.

The events of 1948 are big and small. Most of Trond’s current life borders on or is mundane. But that is part of everyone’s story, how both personally momentous events and seemingly insignificant decisions put us on the path of our lives and off other paths that would have kept us from being where and who we are today. As such, perhaps I shouldn’t label this foreign fiction. Like much excellent writing, this is universal fiction.

I believe we shape our lives ourselves, at any rate I have shaped mine, for what it’s worth, and I take complete responsibility.

Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses

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