This review originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Sunday July 15, 2007
The Elegance of Being
“Out Stealing Horses,” the fifth novel of Norwegian writer Per Petterson, arrives in this country with much acclaim, having won several awards in Norway and England, and they are well deserved. It’s a story so full of mysteries both revealed and implied, a story both simple and emotionally complex, it would be criminal to explain too much about the plot, and in so doing spoil the twists and turns of fate that link the main character to many others, principally his father. What can be said is this: The story unfolds in parallel narratives of a summer in 1948 and an autumn in 2000; the action takes place in eastern Norway, near the Swedish border.
Petterson describes the landscape of pine and spruce forests, cold rivers, and heavy snows with a rapturous intensity, and the idyllic childhood moments are interrupted by lightning strikes of adult tragedy. It’s a novel that dares to cross the line between adventure narrative and philosophical rumination. It differs from standard philosophy in that it hints at the implications of the characters actions, and allows the reader the pleasure of puzzling out the motivations for behavior.
Told from the first person point of view of Trond, a sixty-seven year old man, the novel begins as if it were a meditation on aging and loneliness. Trond has led a successful life, and several times he admits he was always “the boy with the golden trousers,” i.e., the lucky one. But it seems his luck has run out. Three years earlier his wife was killed in an automobile accident, and he admits late in the novel that he could not go on living the way he had before, as a successful businessman in Oslo, so he moves to the countryside. He chooses a lovely region in eastern Norway, buys a fixer-upper cabin, and sets off for a life of solitude. His retreat from his past is short-lived: In comes a mysterious neighbor, Lars, who is both kind and helpful, and who, it turns out, played a crucial role in tragic events that unfolded some fifty years before, events which Trond has perhaps never recovered from, a fact which he is only now realizes.
His present life is filled with the routine of a retired man living alone: He takes his dog for walks around Swan Lake, he chainsaws fallen trees for firewood, he works to repair his decrepit cabin. He generally seems fit and in good mental condition, but as the story unfolds, his weaknesses appear. His physical health is more fragile than first indicated, and his mental and emotional quirks come to the fore: When he sold his home and business in Oslo, he didn’t even tell his daughter where he went. She tracks him down several months after this abrupt disappearance, and when she asks why he didn’t tell her or give her a call, he has no clear answer.
Lars’s appearance prompts the unfolding of events that took place when Trond was fifteen years old, when he spent a summer in this same region with his father. Although readers may come to judge him harshly by the end of the novel, Trond’s father is certainly a good and noble man from the outset: He was an active member of the Norwegian resistance under Nazi occupation, and he demonstrates courage, good sense, and mental acuity. He’s confident, strong, and admired by both men and women. Trond adores him, naturally, and during this summer he grows wiser and stronger in his father’s shadow. It’s a golden time that is encapsulated by a three-day journey on horseback they take at the end of summer, when they go “out stealing horses,” although no horses are stolen.
But adoration has its price. “Out Stealing Horses” is remarkable for portraying a realistic world peopled with admirable and endearing characters, caught in the vortex of events that turn out badly. A bone-deep sadness haunts the story, made all the more poignant by the beauty of the landscape and its people. Now and then a book comes along that deserves the label “classic.” Such books don’t change our lives, but they point toward a greater understanding of this puzzle of existence. “Out Stealing Horses” is in that class, a book that demands to be read and considered.—William J. Cobb