“Like an old photograph, it illuminates everything to a sudden point of clarity” – Echoland by Per Petterson
There is something about debut novels. Especially when you read them after reading several later ones by the author. It can be likened to looking at old photographs of your recent friends. Photographs from before you knew them. Per Petterson’s Echoland was published in 1989 but is being published in English (translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett) for the first time. And like an old photograph, it illuminates everything to a sudden point of clarity.
Arvid has just turned twelve and is visiting his grandparents in Denmark with his mother, father and sister Gry. He has ‘troubles of his own’, as his mother puts it. He used to wet the bed at night, and he has nightmares about the German who drowned in the sea during the war and was never found after being pulled to the bottom by the dangerous riptides. His mother has told him the story to warn him off swimming past the third sandbank. And when Arvid is awake, he worries about all the other confusing things that are happening around him, like his grandmother crying in her little room behind the dairy shop or his mother always being angry whenever they come to visit his grandparents, or his father pretending that nothing of the sort is happening. Or about his little brother who was born early and whom God didn’t save despite Arvid’s prayers.
Petterson’s writing is so evocative of life on the cusp of becoming a teenager that when I close the book, I go back to the beginning and I re-read, puzzling out Arvid’s family history with him from between the lines, not ready to let them all go just yet. It is like a riddle, all these little things that people say when they don’t quite control themselves, all the strange looks, all the tension, all the ancient history that still feels so raw. I can’t help thinking about my own cusp, my own twelfth summer. Different family, country, time – and yet the same feeling of emerging power one moment and the next, complete powerlessness.
Arvid’s power comes from the adventurers. From Huckleberry Finn, Pelle the Conqueror and Terje Vigen. From his own Italian great-great-grandfather Bruno who had built bridges all over Europe instead of continuing his family baking business. He reads about these boys and men in the books from his father’s bookcase and what he doesn’t read he makes up himself. This isn’t something he can share with his father, or with anyone else, so he travels to all the faraway lands on his own, in his imagination, and his father thinks that Arvid comes from a different planet. Even his friend Mogens has no idea what he is talking about, and Arvid tells him to forget it. His power comes from the adventurers and also from his mother’s words about his dead uncle Jesper whom Arvid knows he resembles so much. About Jesper’s death being ‘written in the stars’. As Arvid tears off his red swimming trunks to tease a raging bull, or jumps into the sea to overpower and kill the giant cod that he has managed to catch, he is fearless because he knows that he still has ‘plenty of time’.
Arvid’s power grows and the sequence of tests through which he puts himself lead to the ultimate confrontation, this time with his own father, a confrontation so alike the ones most of us have experienced with our own early authority figures.
And through all Arvid’s adventures he is accompanied by the sea. Petterson’s sea is like life itself, with its riptides and sandbanks and its plaice that everyone in the little town is fed up with, and the cod that feels like one strong muscle in Arvid’s hands. So are Petterson’s long sentences which somehow don’t feel complicated and add to the powerful juxtaposition of Arvid’s simple activities and the complex significance of everything around him that he soaks up and constantly reflects on.
Any Cop?: Echoland is a novel that tastes of the sea and the sun and of frightening and beautiful thunderstorms.
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- October 13, 2016 / 9:00 am