A Town Called Mørk
- I Refuse by Per Petterson, translated by Don Bartlett
Harvill Secker, 282 pp, £16.99, October 2014, ISBN 978 1 84655 781 1
Per Petterson makes a small detour in the course of his latest novel’s action, as he steers one of his characters into a bookshop to pass comment on the major Scandinavian cultural export of recent years:
All the new fiction, I didn’t know any of the authors’ names, and on two long tables there were three stacks of fat crime books next to each other, most of them Norwegian, and I hadn’t heard of these authors either, apart from maybe a couple of them, who were selling sensationally well, I had seen them in the newspaper, they were given a full-page spread on the arts pages in Dagbladet, and in the financial section at the back, because they earned serious money, but actually I didn’t much like crime novels.
Even so, his book shares a border of some sort with the crime thriller. Early one morning in September 2006, two childhood friends, estranged for more than thirty years, recognise each other on the Ulvøya bridge on the outskirts of Oslo and exchange a few words. Jim, long-term unemployed and unable to sleep, is fishing from the bridge, while Tommy is out driving his new grey Mercedes with tinted windows. Jim notices without envy that the car’s paintwork is shiny, ‘as skin can be shiny at certain times, in certain situations’, and that though Tommy now looks like Jon Voight in Enemy of the State the horizontal scar above his left eye is ‘still evident, white, luminous, silver’. A scar is backstory made flesh.
The narrative switches back and forward between 2006 and the 1960s and 1970s, when Jim and Tommy were inseparable, and Tommy’s was the life that seemed precarious. He lived with his father (a dustman, powerfully built, who could lift loaded hundred-litre metal bins, one in each arm, as if they weighed nothing) and three sisters, Siri and the young twins. He couldn’t protect his sisters from the kicks dealt out at the end of each working day, but he tried nevertheless to keep some sense of family going after the disappearance of their mother a couple of years before. Jim had no father, and no details about who he might have been. A passage from his point of view shifts between pathos and astringency in a way that is characteristic of the book; in it he imagines the standard image of a missing father, ‘a man so badly needed in his wholeness and consequence’ that ‘life was twisted and distorted for the boy left behind, with his achingly empty hands, robbed of his masculine model, the football-playing man, the cross-country-skiing man, a man who stood his ground, who never let his gaze drop, but looked everyone boldly in the eye.’ But this isn’t Jim’s situation. He is defined by an absence that has no shape, that can hardly even aspire to the condition of loss: ‘In Jim’s mind there was nothing stored, nothing you could see on an X-ray, inside his brain everything was as it had always been.’
One father who has left no trace, and another who leaves red and blue marks, hard scabs where the skin has split and not yet healed. After Tommy, aged 13, goes into action with a baseball bat the two friends are closer to equality in the matter of fathers. Tommy’s father disappears from the area, and the children are split up, the twins adopted nearby, Tommy taken in by a neighbour who soon gets him a job in a local sawmill. Siri lives some distance away in a respectable household, protected from the bad influence of the brother who tried to protect her.
I Refuse is a novel about damage and survival, but the damage doesn’t manifest itself in predictable ways. It’s Jim, less obviously traumatised if traumatised at all, who experiences some sort of emotional illness, in the course of which he rejects the friend who has been his second self. The precipitating event is a midnight lark on the ice in December 1970, when both boys have turned 18:
With a few hefty thrusts of their skates they raced across the lake in a straight line and braked sideways-on in the middle of it all with a shower of ice spraying up from the blades like you could see in a hockey match on TV and stopped and stood still and only slowly looked from side to side, and there was nothing but forest, and no one else was out tonight.
They talk about their friendship, which Jim says (‘carefully, in a low voice’) could last all their lives. Tommy says it will last as long as they want it to, which makes Jim happy, but he presses the point, asking whether there is something special in him, something good. Tommy says he’s just Jim, and Jim is suddenly not sure this is enough.
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