Arvid Jansen is Per Petterson's Nathan Zuckerman. The Norwegian novelist's confused alter ego now gets his second book, a much, much better prequel to the underdeveloped In the Wake. As with Petterson's IMPAC Dublin winning masterpiece Out Stealing Horses, here in I Curse the River of Time the placid surface covers great depth and power. At 37 in the tumult of 1989, Arvid is about to endure three incomprehensible losses: the end of his marriage, the death of his mother, and the fall of Communism. After getting her dire prognosis in early winter, Arvid's mother immediately leaves Oslo to go to the family's summer cottage in her native Denmark. (When she, an ardent smoker long worried about lung cancer, hears that she's actually dying of stomach cancer, she says, "What a waste of time.") Uninvited, Arvid follows her and during the all night ferry ride and over next couple days, he thinks about his life, riddled with big and bigger mistakes. The first in his family to attend college, he dropped out at 20 to prove his commitment to Communism by working in a factory, for eleven years. His personal life is no less delusional. But real readers will find a soulmate in him for his consuming devotion to literature. Riding the bus to the hospital after his older brother has had a fatal accident, Arvid thinks of the scene in A Moveable Feast
when F. Scott Fitzgerald worries to Hemingway in a Parisian cafe men's room that he's endowed too small, and what a bastard Hemingway must have been to parade that anecdote decades later when Fitzgerald was a drunk and his reputation in decline. At the hospital, Arvid's younger brother reacted to the crisis by going outside and sprinting laps around the building. Arvid arrives after that, looks down from a window and sees him without recognizing him. The whole book abounds with magnificent understatement.