Looking back at the books I’ve read this year, of 60 or so just nine have been in translation from other languages. Worse still, only one of those did I enjoy unequivocally (Stefan Zweig’s Chess). Is it me or them? Am I a philistine, or is there a cultural and linguistic barrier which means I will never enjoy translated literature as much as stuff written in English? What better way to find out than to try this season’s hot foreign property, Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses.
It was published in Norway in 2003, where it won two awards. Translated into English in 2005 by Anne Born, it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year. But not only is this the best foreign language work recently published; a few weeks ago it also won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, making it apparently the best book in any language, anywhere in the world, available in English, this year. It was up against some pretty stiff competition: Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, J.M. Coetzee and others. Great expectations.
One thing Out Stealing Horses does not do is radically rearrange your stereotype of Scandanavia. The people here are taciturn, laconic, moody. Brooding. Brooding hardest of all is our narrator, Trond, who is living a life of chosen solitude in the remote forests of Norway. The book takes us between his present existence and the childhood days which changed his life.
“I hate being entertained, I don’t have any time for it,” Trond tells us. Well: you’ve come to the right place. While the tentative, misty prose has its seductive qualities, another word for it would be soporific.
…picked our rakes up and walked out fanwise with the right distance between us and started to rake the grass from all sides towards the rack, and it was obvious at once why the handles were so long. They provided radius enough for us to cover the whole space together, and not so much as a straw was left behind, but it was tough on our palms with the rake rubbing forwards and backwards a thousand times, and we had to wear gloves to save the skin from being torn and prevent burns and blisters after one hour only. And then we filled the first wire, some with hayforks and balance and great precision, others with their hands, like my father and I, who did not have the same experience. But that went well too, and the inner side of our bare arms turned slowly green, and the wire filled up, and we fixed up another one and filled that one too, and then another, until we have five wires crammed full one above the other, and the top one with a slightly shallower layer of grass hung down like a thatched roof on each side, so when the rain came it would just run off, and the rack could stand there for months and the hay would be just as good right under the outermost layer…
But it does flare into life in places, most notable when Trond and his childhood friend Jon go ‘out stealing horses’ and Jon does something sudden and shocking when they are looking at birds’ eggs in a tree. The reason for his ‘sudden breakdown’ is even more horrifying and provides the engine for the subsequent revelations in the story.
There is also a pleasing quality to the book’s serenade to a life of physical labour among nature: barely a scene passes without wood being chopped, logs being rolled, or dogs or horses being men’s greatest companions (“I landed on the horse’s back a bit too close to its neck, and its shoulder bones hit me in the crotch and sent a jet of nausea up into my throat”). And there are interesting things to be told about the rarely discussed role of Norwegian civilians in the second world war.
But the prose never really engaged me, and I knew we were in trouble when I felt the page lighting up on recognising the work of other writers. Petterson peppers the later pages with the opening lines of The Go-Between (“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”) and Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark (“It was as if a curtain had fallen, hiding everything I had ever known”). It doesn’t serve to flatter him. I wondered if there might be other famous opening lines too – the narrator is a fan of the novels of Charles Dickens, though I didn’t spot any of his. And that sums up my experience of Out Stealing Horses: not the best of tomes, but not the worst of tomes either.