I was introduced to Per Petterson’s ‘Out Stealing Horses‘ by the inventive organisers of ‘Future Built 2015‘, who provided gifts of Norwegian literature to all the foreign speakers at their wonderful event in Drammen a few months ago. Based on a sample of eight natives at the pre-conference dinner table, the novel has been read by about four fifths of the country’s population. I’m not surprised – it is a wonderful book, combining a glimpse into the simultaneously dark and uplifting history of Norway’s’ Second World War, alongside a subtle exploration of family, adolescence and loss as the ageing narrator seeks to come to terms with a defining event in his childhood.
Trond is sixty-eight going on eight-eight. His wife has died and he has retired to a remote and rudimentary country cottage. While straight-forwardly content with how he has lived (‘To tell the truth I have nothing against the face in the mirror. I acknowledge it, I recognise myself. I cannot ask for more.’), his days and nights are disturbed by the recollection of one pivotal summer in 1948 when he was fifteen. This is the day a childhood friend knocked on his door and suggested they go out “stealing horses”.
The book thus performs a constant, swinging juxtaposition between the mellow and ponderous contemplation of a retiree, and the heart-racing excitement and confusion of a youth being introduced rather sharply to adulthood.
What makes Out Stealing Horses so beguiling, however, is that nestled in amongst this well-trodden ground of coming-of-age and father-son relationship, is a subtle exploration of Nazi-occupied Norway during the Second World War. From my limited exposure to Norwegian history it is clear that the country somewhat struggles with the mixture of resistance and collusion which characterised the population’s response to Hitler’s troops, much as Trond battles to come to terms with his own role in the family-defining events of 1948. The reveal about the book’s title about half-way through cleverly draws the two strands together, but I can’t say any more without ruining it!
If I had a son or daughter I would want them to read ‘Out Stealing Horses’ and I imagine that is why it has become such a big seller in Norway. Per Petterson now joins the already long list of reasons for markontour to love Norway, alongside the fjords, mountains, glaciers, relative equality, and wonderful people. And having now gained my first taste of Norweigan literature, I am hoping that my fellow speakers at Future Built 2015 will make good on the pledge we made around the dinner table to swap gifts, so that I can soak up a bit more.