Saturday, December 06, 2008

To Siberia

Per Petterson’s newly released novel To Siberia (first published in 1996 but only now available in the US) is something of a disappointment. The first half is very good. The story is about a brother and sister growing up in Denmark in the 1930s and 40s. They have a tough, hard scrabble existence. Their father is a carpenter who “works his way downward”, as his daughter puts it. Their mother a religious eccentric who bangs away at the piano singing hymns of her own composition. Grandpa is an abusive alcoholic given to fits of rage. Suicide takes him out of the novel early. Not surprisingly, the children dream of escape. Jesper, the son, of going to Morocco and the daughter (who narrates the book yet never gives her name – her brother refers to her as “Sistermine”) of boarding the Tran-Siberian Railway and moving to Siberia.

I had read about it, seen pictures in a book, and decided that no matter when and how life would turn out, one day I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostok on that train, and I practiced saying the names: Omsk, Tomsk, Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, they were difficult to pronounce with all their hard consonants, but ever since the trip to Skagen, every journey I made by train was a potential departure on my own great journey.
I liked the early sections of the book best. Petterson is at his best depicting the family: the cold and brutal father, the love between the brother and sister. The novel is apparently based on the life of Petterson’s mother and it has that feel of easy intimacy that one gets in a well-told family story. Petterson can sketch a character’s whole life in a few details. Here Sistermine tells us about what happened when her grandfather hanged himself in the barn:

When they cut Grandfather down they found a scrap of paper in his jacket pocket. He was wearing a white shirt and his best suit with watch chain and waistcoat, his thick hair was brushed back like shining fur, and there was no gray in it, because he had eaten bones and gristle all his life.
“Bones and gristle” is a nice touch. Even better is the reference to the Grandfather’s hair as “shining fur” as if he was just another well-groomed animal in the barn.

The Nazis invade, and the novel goes downhill. (Ah, what doesn’t go downhill when Nazis show up?) Jesper, by this point a Socialist, joins the underground resistance and goes into hiding. Sistermine weathers out the occupation as best she can. The gripping family drama is replaced by accounts of ugly encounters between the Dutch and their German occupiers. Accurate? Sure. But not very interesting. Without the relationship of Jesper and Sistermine at the center of the novel, the story becomes disjointed – it loses its soul.

After the war, the brother and sister begin to grow more separate lives. She eventually leaves Denmark and travels to Sweden where she gets pregnant. Jesper makes it to Morocco. We never find out if she makes it to Siberia.

Despite its excellent beginning the novel peters out in the end. I really didn’t care about any of the new characters who show up in the last half of the novel and if you abandon it when the Third Reich arrives you won’t be missing much.

Still, this novel is ultimately worth reading. When Petterson is good he is very good. The early chapters involving the family are vivid and masterful. Twenty years from now I’ll still be able to remember them. (The later chapters were forgotten as soon as I closed the book.) At its best Petterson’s prose is like an enforced hush. Here, for instance, is the young Sistermine ruminating about how she will adapt to the Siberian cold:

…I don’t think the cold will bother me. They have different clothes in Siberia that I can learn to wear instead of now when I have only my thin coat against the wind that comes in from the sea between Denmark and Sweden and blows straight through everything. They have caps made of wolfskin and big jackets and fur-lines boots, and lots of the people who live there look like Eskimos. I might pass as one of them if I cut my hair short. And besides I shall sit in the train and look out of the window and talk to people, and they will tell me what their lives are like and what their thoughts are and ask me why I have come all the long way from Denmark. Then I will answer them:

“I have read about you in a book.” And then we’ll drink hot tea from the samovar and be quiet together just looking.
To Siberia is not a great novel. But Petterson is, nonetheless, a great writer.

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