ASHES IN MY MOUTH, SAND IN MY SHOES
by Per Petterson
translated by Don Bartlett
Graywolf Press, 118 pages
reviewed by Rory McCluckie
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is Per Petterson’s first book but one of his last to be translated into English. This isn’t surprising; Petterson’s 2005 worldwide breakthrough, Out Stealing Horses, triggered a certain catching-up period for translators. Gradually, we readers have been able to consume the bulk of his output but it’s only now that we can see for ourselves where it all started for the author. This means that readers are able to bring a context to this work that isn’t usually part of the chronological reading of contemporary fiction.
It makes for an interesting exercise. Published in 1987 when he was in his mid-thirties, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes is a collection of stories that launched Petterson on a writing career that followed stints as a librarian, book store clerk, and translator. You could mine the man’s biography for years, however, and still not find anything more horrifically arresting than the event that took place on April 7, 1990. Early that morning, while travelling aboard the MS Scandinavian Star, Petterson’s mother, father, brother and niece perished along with 155 others when the ferry was set on fire. It would be a hard task to read his post-1990 work without some kind of reference to this tragic occurrence and, sure enough, much of that writing is delivered in a tone that feels like a reaction against this terrible misfortune. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, however, came before this pivotal moment in Petterson’s life and thus naturally seems to pose a very simple but fascinating question; namely, does this early work suggest that, under different circumstances, Petterson would have been a different writer than he is today?
The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is that it doesn’t seem he would have been that different at all. The reason is that this is an unusually prescient book. The first work of any writer is likely to contain ideas that are revisited and developed in later projects, but Petterson appears to have been set upon a certain group of themes from the outset. At the very least, his debut betrays an initial thrashing around for concepts that would later come to bear bountiful fruit for the novelist. This impression is one that arises easily from the book’s structure. Ashes is a collection of ten stories over 118 pages and, thus, has a brevity and pace that is absent from Petterson’s later work. Across these pages, he gives first airing to themes that have now become his common ground, and they’re explored through the experiences of Arvid Jansen—a recurring character in Petterson’s work.
Family, in particular, dominates proceedings. The book starts and ends with scenes of Arvid and his father, with the opening providing an immediate, enlightening example of one of the ways this subject provides fertile ground for Petterson:
Dad had a face that Arvid loved to watch, and at the same time made him nervous as it wasn’t just a face but also a rock in the forest with its furrows and hollows, at least if he squinted when he looked…Those that liked to comment on this kind of thing said that the two of them looked a lot like each other and that was perhaps what made Arvid most nervous, but when he glanced in the mirror he didn’t understand what they meant for Dad was blond, and all Arvid saw in the mirror was two round cheeks and plainly Dad did not have them.
But most of the time Dad was just Dad, someone that Arvid liked and dared to touch. Uncle Rolf said that Dad’s face had a determination that couldn’t determine where to go, but Uncle Rolf had always been a big mouth.
There’s a lot going on in this opening page. First, it’s interesting to note how quickly Petterson establishes the peculiar pitch of the familial relation. There’s undoubted affection in the way the members of the Jansen clan interact but there’s also uncertainty, as though they’re alive to the threat of being hurt by the very people they hold close. The way that Arvid “loved” and yet was also “nervous” over that first line economically strikes an uncomfortable balance that is maintained throughout the book and that is explored again and again in Petterson’s later works.
Second, Petterson immediately suggests a doubt about Arvid’s paternal origin. In what later turns out to be characteristic of the author, this isn’t explored in any detail. Rather, it’s an example of his occasional employment of Hemingway’s theory of omission. The brief reference to Arvid and his father is all that’s suggested to the reader but it betrays the enormous emotional and historical weight beneath the surface. Again, this is something that we see frequesntly in his later work. I Curse the River of Time, in particular, is memorable for the way some major incidents are never completely explicated but which the characters move around silently, like mournful planets orbiting a dismal sun.
And then there’s that wonderfully penetrating observation from Uncle Rolf: “a determination that couldn’t determine where to go.” This could be a description of a number of characters throughout Petterson’s work; a stifling inability to progress or to achieve something the characters themselves might not even know the dimensions of tortures a number of them across the writer’s corpus. Far from being some reaction against real events, it seems as though Petterson was drawn to this type of quiet desperation from the start.
The opening passage (and Ashes in general) reveals Petterson’s early ability to write from the child’s point of view, with the adult world poised on the horizon like a mysterious, unpredictable mountain. In fact, one of the most potent stories in this collection draws its force from the overlapping of youth and age. “Like a Tiger in a Cage” takes its name from the way Arvid suddenly sees the effect of time on the face of his mother. The result is visceral in its force:
She’d looked the way she always had for as far back as he could remember, and she still did right up until the day he happened to see a photograph of her from before he was born, and the difference floored him. He tried to work out what could have happened to her, and then he realised it was time that had happened and it was happening to him too, every second of the day. He held his hands to his face as if to keep his skin in place and for many nights he lay clutching his body, feeling time sweeping through it like little explosions. The palms of his hands were quivering and he tried to resist time and hold it back. But nothing helped, and with every pop he felt himself getting older.
The shocking, revelatory nature of Arvid’s discovery feels terrifyingly genuine and laced with the trauma that can accompany a child’s first encounter with adult reality. The eight year-old protagonist has a similarly distressing experience when it comes to the subject of sex. He refuses to believe that human beings would engage in what he sees as behavior worthy of animals and provokes a rage-filled physical attack from one of his peers that leaves him prostrate on the road, in tears:
People fucked. Or else there wouldn’t be any babies. That’s the way it was. But he would never do it, wouldn’t want to or dare to or manage to, and he couldn’t care less whether he had children or not. But he felt strangely sad when he thought about the particular thing.
This kind of obstinate reaction somehow feels right, and so like Petterson because it chimes with what he wrote later. Through it, Arvid, though only a young boy, expresses a determination that establishes itself against reality and goes straight to the heart of what makes many of Petterson’s characters so melancholic and so ill-equipped for life.
Importantly, however, this is not an entirely morose book. Some critics have claimed that there is humor to be found in Petterson’s later works but such is the mood of those volumes, so steady and sad is the prose as it unfolds as though under grey, Nordic skies, that if it is there, its mirthful potential is completely drained of power. That’s not the case with Ashes. Partly as a result of the book’s pacey character, but equally due to a genuinely sunnier constitution, Petterson appears just a fraction more capable of cracking a smile within these stories. When, for example, Uncle Rolf is ingenious enough to come up with the idea of urinating out of the bedroom window instead of traipsing outdoors for relief, he does so (unintentionally) onto Arvid’s late grandmother’s rose bed. In later work, this sort of event would be shot through with a pathetic and bitter inflection; here, when Arvid’s father discovers the perpetrator midstream, Petterson is capitalizing on a potential for humor that he later came to ignore. In this first outing, the laughs have some kind of substance behind them; in later work, they’re hollow and lack conviction.
This is the only substantial difference between the Per Petterson of 1987 and the one who went on to write after the disaster of 1990. Indeed, there’s one particular episode in Ashes that seems to confirm it. It comes again from “Like a Tiger in a Cage,” this time when Arvid’s mother has gone for a nocturnal walk in the rain after another argument with her husband. While Arvid waits upstairs with his sister, they talk about how their mother always “walked up Trondhjemsveien, on the left- hand side, as far and as fast as she could,” and how, when she reached Grorud, “she crossed the road and came all the way back at the same insane tempo, smoking non-stop.” That night, however, is different from most in that his mother returns and then comes into his room to talk. Arvid seizes the opportunity:
“Why do you cross the road? I mean, why do you cross the road when you’re almost in Grorud and you’re on your way back?”
“Because I don’t want to walk with the cars heading in the same direction as me.”
“Because is makes me feel they are all going away and I’m left standing there. You see?”
The explanation is fastidiously concise and yet it feels fundamental to Petterson’s writing. His characters don’t behave in their stubbornly inactive way out of a determined stand against anything, but because, by acting so, they escape the risk of something else that is much worse—being left behind. It’s an exchange that resounds throughout this small collection and one that extends its resonance deep into the author’s later work. More than that, it affirms that this authorial personality hasn’t simply been hewn from the ruins of one horrific event. Before life inflicted its terrible blow on Petterson himself, he was already imagining the pain of being alone—he’s been the same writer from the very start.
Rory McCluckie is a freelance writer and editor from Manchester, England. A graduate of the University of Leeds, he currently resides in Montreal.