From near the end of this slow-burning, painful-yet-lovely novel:
…but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore really nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, that very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember. (pg 231 of the 2010 Graywolf Press Edition)
I Curse the River of Time is a bit of a sequel to Petterson’s earlier novel, To Siberia. That book concerns the maturation of a young provincial Danish girl from her childhood in the early 1930s to her young womanhood in the aftermath of World War II, and the overwhelming, larger-than-life presence of her older brother, Jesper, an adventurous spirit and person with no feeling of satisfaction in life, always looking to be great, to do great things. And that novel ends with the nameless young woman–the narrator–pregnant by a Norwegian man some years her elder, finding herself rejected of her family, and realizing that her life was over, except all the rest of it. This novel is the story of her son–not the one she’s pregnant with earlier, but the next one born to her of the same man–Arvid, 37 and going through a divorce, reliving his life on a day with his mother, dying of cancer, in her little Danish seaside hometown.
Well, Arvid does not relive his own life in toto, though there are a few glimpses of moments from childhood, adolescence, and recent years. The majority of the novel splits itself between his living in this particular day and remembering his life at 20, 21, a college dropout idealist, with a girlfriend of 17 or 18 and a factory job he’s taken as a way of feeling as if he’s doing something important, as a way of living out his ideals–in this, he’s like his Uncle Jesper, who was never satisfied. And while we do not know the causes of his divorce, or much about his life in his 30s generally, we are lead to find Arvid’s time in that factory and with that young girlfriend as a moment of turning, of transition, of his idealism (specifically his Communism) defining his life away from something mundane to something he desires and wants to be great and significant. But such is foolishness. Arvid will never be satisfied; he only plays at his ideals. He is simply a man for whom life, mere life will never be good enough. He is not a man who, as his mother said all those years before, claim that life can be over, except for the rest of it.
And thus is what Arvid faces here, making these ruminations on the day after the Berlin Wall has fallen, his ideals–and his essential, hyper-idealistic pettiness–symbolically crashing around him, knowing his mother will be dead, and being filled with regret.
We must not be afraid to live. We must not let the perfect vision of life intrude upon and destroy a version of a good life. And we must learn this before 37, lest we stand, like Arvid, thinking only of death fearfully, regretfully, with no life left to us, with all the life allotted us wasted on chasing impossibilities.