Ask most children to pick a vacation spot, and answers will probably range from “the beach” to “Disney World.” Budding sophisticates might come up with France or Italy. The place the young narrator of Per Petterson’s newly released novel longs to visit: Siberia.
Her beloved older brother, Jesper, not surprisingly, wants heat and sunshine.
“Jesper was heading for Morocco. That would be too hot for me. I wanted open skies that were cold and clear, where it was easy to breathe and easy to see for long distances,” she remembers.
The narrator of To Siberia also thinks the timber houses there will be somehow warmer than the damp brick of her own town in northern Denmark. As for the Gulag? She dismisses that as “Nazi propaganda.”
Dreams of Siberia, school, and Jesper get the narrator through a childhood that has the grim quality of a fairy tale. Then the Nazis invade Denmark, and all thought of travel vanishes as she watches her teenage brother get involved in the Resistance.
“Out Stealing Horses,” in which a man in his 60s tries to recapture the pastoral, physically demanding life of the summer when he was 15, established Norwegian author Petterson as an international phenomenon – winning accolades, including the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award – and earning a well-deserved slot on numerous Top 10 lists.
“To Siberia” is actually an earlier novel. It was published in England in 1998, but has never before been available in the US. Both novels deal with abandonment and hinge around the Nazi invasion of World War II. But where echoes from the war terminate the childhood of the narrator of “Horses,” it’s the war itself that put an end to the narrator’s in “Siberia.”
That childhood looks pretty bleak and spare, except for Jesper. He’s the one who instigates the nighttime prowls that offer a taste of freedom and is the only character in the novel with a discernible sense of humor.
Their parents are rigid and cold – their dad, a hunchbacked carpenter who perfected the art of downward mobility long before the term was ever coined; their mother, a wispy-voiced woman more interested in hymns and heaven than in her family.
In a life filled with hard work, not enough money, and grudging family visits, the narrator remembers one pleasure trip. The outing to a seaside resort town is an unqualified disaster, but memorable for two reasons.
“What I liked was the train ride. It took an hour and that was enough for me to be able to lean backwards against the seat with closed eyes, feel the joints in the rails come up and thump through my body and sometimes peer out of the windows and see windswept heathland and imagine I was on the Tran-Siberian Railway. I had read about it, seen pictures in a book and decided that no matter when and how life would turn out, one day I would travel from Moscow to Vladivostock on that train.”
When they return, they step off the train to learn that their grandfather has committed suicide and their father has been cut out of the will.
As with “Out Stealing Horses,” much of the action takes place off-stage, adding to the atmosphere of silence. For example, when Jesper kills a German soldier, all we see is his bruised face and the stolen Luger pistol.
Having a narrator who’s largely a passive observer is a tricky thing. In “To Siberia” she doesn’t even get her own name – the only way she’s referred to is by her relationship to Jesper: “Sistermine.” And when Jesper leaves, she’s left with a hollow existence, unable to connect to anyone.
The second, less-successful part of the novel finds the narrator wandering various Scandinavian cities, working menial jobs, and trying to lose herself in books. All the time, she’s longing for a reunion with Jesper. (So is the reader, since it’s hard for a novel to maintain full focus with no word from the main character.)
“To Siberia” shares an evocative, haunting quality with “Out Stealing Horses,” but it isn’t quite an unqualified triumph. “Horses” had a reverence for nature and an energetic physicality to match its 15-year-old protagonist. “To Siberia” ends up being more closed off, a tragedy for a narrator who longed so fiercely for open spaces.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.