Per Petterson

"Out Stealing Horses"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 27, 2007)

In Per Petterson’s award-winning Out Stealing Horses, the protagonist, Trond Sanders, is 67 years old-- he is not quite old but pretty much retiring from life after losing his beloved wife and sister. He moves to a solitary cabin in the deep woods of Norway to get away from it all. No television because with it “time passes only when others do the moving;” but he does have a dog to keep him company. It is closing in on the new millennium but Trond is not terribly interested in all its associated hoopla.

In this solitude he runs into a neighbor, a man who is five years younger than him, and someone whom Trond remembers from a past he would rather forget. One evening they share a dinner together, the neighbor looks up and says to Trond, “I know who you are.” It is then that the past comes hurtling back at Trond. “I wish Lars had not said what he said, it ties me to a past I thought was well behind me and pulls aside the fifty years with a lightness that seems almost indecent,” Trond says.

In assured prose translated ably by Anne Born, Petterson details the events of one summer in Trond’s childhood, including a tragic betrayal by his father, that ultimately shaped the adult Trond in very fundamental ways. “When someone says the past is a foreign country, that they do things differently there, then I have probably felt that way most of my life because I have been obliged to, but I am not any more,” Trond says later.

Out Stealing Horses has won a whole bevy of literary awards for its Norwegian author Per Petterson, and deservedly so. This gem of a novel reveals its complexities (and its heartbreaks) slowly--and careful, measured reading is often called for. Incidentally, the phrase “Out stealing horses” at one point implies a juvenile prank thought up by Trond’s old friend, Jon. Years later, Trond is surprised when he is told that the same phrase was used by the Resistance to transport people from the occupied territories into Sweden.

At one point in the novel, Trond wishes for a more objective classification of his life--for “someone to draw two lines under the columns: this much you had. This much you gave away. This much you have left.” Of course life hardly ever lends itself to such simple accounting. One of the many strengths of Out Stealing Horses is that it stays with the reader long after the last page is turned, wondering just what comprises a life considered well-lived and what kind of accounting our own lives will yield. “I am lucky” Trond says over and over again. At age 67, when it probably is not even time to take stock yet, will we be able to say the same?

Towards the end Trond’s daughter, Ellen, pays him a visit and he is surprised to learn that they share a common worry: that they would “not necessarily be the leading characters” of their lives. Even in the deep woods of Norway, decades after that memorable summer, Trond finds he can never shake his past completely away. The betrayal he faces at the hands of his father casts a quiet but looming presence over Trond’s life. It may not be the “leading character” in his life but it comes pretty darned close. (Translated by Anne Born.)
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About the Author:

Per PettersonPer Petterson was born in 1952 in Oslo, Norway. He was a librarian and bookseller before he published his first work, a volume of short stories, in 1987. Since then he has written a book of essays and five novels that have established his reputation as one of Norway’s best fiction writers.

He's won the two top literary prizes in Norway - the The Norwegian Critics Prize for Literature and the Booksellers’ Best Book of the Year Award. The 2005 English language translation of Out Stealing Horses was awarded the 2006 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (the world's largest literary prize for a single work of fiction published in English (€100,000). The New Yorkt Times has selected Out Stealing Horses as the Best Book of 2007.

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