There was a few years after my brother was born but before we moved to Vermont that my parents seriously considered moving the family to Ireland. Before I was six, we had visited three times. With relatives on both sides of the family and border, my father even went over in November 1989 to look at houses. It was during this visit that as the Berlin Wall fell, my father and our cousin Seamus, while drinking, debated whether they should get to an airport and board the next flight to Berlin. They decided to stay put in the relative safety of a Belfast suburb and the Ferris’ never moved to Ireland.
I couldn’t shake my dad’s proximity, by a few hundred miles, to the historic events unfolding in Berlin as I read Per Petterson’s “I Curse The River of Time.” Petterson’s story shifts between the days leading up to the fall of Berlin Wall and the mid-1970s. The main character, who also serves as the narrator from some unknown point after 1989, is Arvid Jensen.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Arvid’s life is pretty dismal. He and his wife are getting a divorce, the general consensus among the few characters in the book, especially his mother, is that Arvid is a disappointment. Even Arvid concurs. The reader would trace all these disappointments back to his decision to leave college so he can follow through on his communist leanings to help bring about the workers revolution from the factory floor instead of the classroom. It is this decision that creates the initial divide between him and his mother. Efforts at crossing this chasm early on fail and eventually the drift continues.
This distance pains Arvid, especially because he, both in the 1970s and in 1989, thinks back fondly to memories of himself with his mother as a child. At one point he realizes that he completely erased one of his brothers from a long-held memory of a trip to the movies.
Just as his life is falling apart, his mother finds out she is dying. In response to this news, she leaves Norway and visits her homeland in Denmark. Arvid follows her with the hope of connecting with her once again, to recapture something missing.
When the narrative shifts to the 1970s, Arvid, in his early 20s, begins an intense relationship with a girl in high school, who doesn’t want to home. The outcome of their peculiar arrangement – is she the wife who is divorcing him, did they break out before – is never revealed, but the somberness of their interactions only increases the sadness of Arvid’s life.
Most fiction on the NYT list so far has centered around a family or a set of families that are struggling to survive, falling apart, or have cratered. Real inspiring stuff. In “I Curse The River of Time,” the story seems to be about the search for home, as an individual and as a part of a larger unit. Arvid’s search for a home – personal, political, old friends, and within his own family. As the Berlin Wall crumbles, Arvid reminisces that earlier in 1989 he had marched to protest Community China’s response to Tiannamen Square with some of his compatriots from his Maoist days in the 1970s. I highly recommend this book and I’m not giving anything away to say that at the end Arvid is still searching. But in some ways, we all are.