Per Petterson confronts a series of challenges in Out Stealing Horses. He has to present and make believable a 67-year old man who (1) earnestly desires to live alone in the woods but whose (2) calm, deliberate voice is in fact (3) an evasion of a childhood trauma, which (4) can only be healed by genuinely connecting with others, in particular his neighbor Lars and his daughter Ellen. The distance between (1) and (4) is vast, indeed. As is the distance between (2) and (3). Does Petterson succeed? I think so, at least for the most part. Of course, in order to create a compelling illusion, Petterson has to rely on an unreliable narrator, one who appeals to our sympathy and inspires our trust and confidence. Trond is a widower and a rugged individualist. He reads Dickens and takes his dog for long walks. And he’s a plain talker, not like a simple brute of a politician. No, more like C. McCarthy, a spare prose stylist. What’s not to like? Trond is like an uncle or a grandfather. But the most important trick that Peterson employs is to allow Trond to say things that he (Trond) thinks applies to his own life, when in fact they do not. He’s fooled as are we, at least for a bit. “You decide for yourself when it will hurt.” You do? “People like it when you tell them things…. They think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are the facts, not feelings.” Apart from the quibble that feelings are subjective facts, Trond doesn’t know how he feels about his childhood because he’s actively repressing it. Ditto with regard to Ellen when she turns up at his doorstep. Trond doesn’t know how to regard her because he’s disconnected from his feelings. Petterson succeeds by artfully collapsing the distance between (1) and (4) and between (2) and (3). By the time the novel ends, readers damn well know that Trond’s preferred method of dealing with painful emotions isn’t working. And given Trond’s thoroughly pragmatic nature, there’s at least reason to hope that he’ll see it, too.
Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson (2)