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Per Petterson: Ut og stjæle hester (Out Stealing Horses)

Our narrator is Trond Sander. When we first meet him, it is 1999 and he is sixty-seven. He has recently bought a run-down house in a remote part of Northern Norway, near the Swedish border. He is planning to spend his time making it habitable and is happy to do so. All my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this. Even when everything was going well, as it often did. I can say that much. That it often did.

We later learn that prior to buying this house, within the same month, he had been involved in a car accident, in which he had been injured but his (second) wife had died and then soon after, his sister died of cancer. He does have two children from a previous marriage. Now he is alone with his dog, Lyra. By chance, one night, he meets his neighbour, Lars and they chat briefly. Both will later remember that they knew one another when they were children.

We jump back to 1948. Trond is fifteen and staying in a cabin that his father owns. Trond’s mother and sister have stayed in the family home in Oslo leaving the men to do men things – fishing, cutting down trees, cutting the hay for the local landowner and so on.

Trond often goes out with a local boy of his age, Jon. Jon refuses to come into the cabin and barely acknowledges Trond’s father. At the beginning of the book, Jon comes round early one morning and tells Trond that they are going out stealing horses. For no obvious reason, the boys dislike the local landowner, Barkald, and are actually going to ride his horses without permission, which they do. It does not go well as Trond falls off and is somewhat hurt but is able to walk home. Jon is behaving in a peculiar manner and when it starts to rain Trond goes home and Jon disappears. It is only later he discovers why.

Jon had been out hunting hares and had shot two. He returns home to find his younger twin brothers, Lars and Odd, missing. He had been told to look after them, so he puts his gun down without removing the cartridge and goes looking for them outside. He hears a shot and hurries back. Lars has shot and killed Odd. Lars is, of course, the sixty-seven year old Trond’s neighbour.

Life goes on. It is haymaking time but also Trond’s father wants to do a certain amount of logging. The logs can be floated downstream to a Swedish sawmill, though it is the wrong season for doing it. Jon’s parents both help (but not Jon) and Jon’s father breaks his leg in an accident. Trond will later see his father comforting Jon’s mother but their relationship seems very close.

Trond is very close to his father. What I do, which I have never let anyone know, is I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it. However, he learns from his father’s friend, Franz, that his father has a mysterious side. Indeed, Trond never knows exactly what his father does for a living but he seems to be very practical.

From Franz, Trond learns that his father was in this region during the war, where he was working for the resistance, passing messages and then people between Norway and Sweden, with the aid of Jon’s mother though without Jon’s father. Trond and his mother and sister were in Oslo and the father would often disappear for weeks at a time and then turn up. They never knew where he had been or what he had been doing. Trond’s father and Jon’s mother were nearly caught by the Germans, so Trond’s father had to flee to Sweden, and he reappears in Oslo at the end of the war.

That summer of 1948 is a key period for Trond. He will never see Jon or his father again. Lars will later fall out with his family, and does not know what happened to his mother or his brother. And now Trond is in his cottage, happy to be on his own, happy up be doing it up, happy to be isolated (no phone), happy to to work on his house and to go out for a walk with Lyra. I realised that what I was most afraid of in this world was to be the man in Magritte’s painting who looking at himself in the mirror sees only the back of his own head, again and again.

This is a strange book in that we know little about the two main characters, Trond and his father. Indeed, we do not even know Trond’s father’s name. Jon and Lars are also something of a mystery. Did Trond’s father have an affair with Jon’s mother? Why did he disappear after 1948 and where to? What did Trond and Lars do in life? Indeed, virtually all the characters seem to live in their own shell, creeping out now and then, but then hurrying back. Petersson has said that he initially was not going to write about the war but he could not avoid it and it is clear that the war, as we have seen in other Norwegian novels, had an impact on Norway and the Norwegians beyond the immediate trauma of occupation.

Petersson is not going to give us the whole picture and that is part of the attraction of this book in that we are left with bits and pieces, some of which we can put together and some of which leave us guessing.

Publishing history

First published in 2003 by Forlaget Oktober
First published in English in 2006 by Vintage/Graywolf
Translated by Anne Born