In The Wake by Per Petterson – a review
It’s a lousy Napoleon cake. The cream should be a pale yellowish white and light, but this one is feverish yellow and sticky. I eat just the top and leave the rest on the plate. I ought to complain, hold the cake up in front of the lady at the counter and say: “This is a cheap imitation. I want my money back.” But I have never done that. I have never complained about anything except badly written books and the world situation, and you don’t get your money back when little Nepalese girls are sold by their families to brothels in Bangkok, or because the World Bank refuses to waive cruel loans to Uganda. On the contrary. And lousy books; they just look at you and say: “Why don’t you write one yourself, then?”
That’s what I’ve tried to do. Several times.
I stub out my fag in the revolting yellow cream and get up and leave. I could have stayed there for a while to see if Thor the poet from Skjetten would turn up on his bike as he often does at this time of day to get a cup of coffee when he’s desperate with writer’s block, which is often the case, and we could have talked about how hopeless it is, the path we have chosen and gossip over colleagues who may have received a big grant from the state or do not sell books at all, and why that isn’t in the least odd. Instead, I go by the escalator up to the first floor and go into the bookshop to see what others are up to while I am stuck. That is not inspiring. The piles left over from Christmas are still there and have not diminished at all, and there are none of mine on the shelves. That is not so strange. It is more than three years since I last published anything, and the woman behind the counter does not recognise me although I have at least twice sat in front of that counter at a small table signing books. I remember myself at eighteen reading Keats and Shelley and Byron and dreaming of publishing one book, or maybe two, which would be on everyone’s lips and be everyone’s mirror, and when they looked in that mirror they would see the people they might have been and they would have to cry, and after that I would just disappear, become one of the young dead and thus immortal, but now I am one of the middle-aged forgotten.
The book is an examination of the crippling grief and incomprehension experienced by forty-three-year-old Arvid after his family are killed in a ferry accident. His marginalization from society is all but complete. He has some commerce with his neighbour, a Kurdish immigrant who lives in one of the flats above him, but apart from the humanity they recognise in each other they have little contact, sharing only two or three words of a common language. There is a light in a flat across the road (shades of Gatsby here) where he sometimes glimpses a woman’s face.
We travel with Arvid while he drives or walks around Oslo and we are included in his recollections of memory. We watch as he begins to write again. Are involved with his slow repatriation into a bearable level of function.
This 1988 novel, translated almost flawlessly by Anne Born in 2002 is short and woven together wistfully in Petterson’s immaculate prose, recognisable from his later novels, To Siberia and Out Stealing Horses.
If you are not yet familiar with Per Petterson’s work, this novel could be a good place to begin an acquaintance.