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In the Wake
on 22 October 2007
Fathers inevitably die, and it is their sons who follow after them. Our fathers do not always love us the way we think they should, but nor do we always love them the way they think we should, either. Arvid Jansen's father died six years ago, and it has taken him until now to realise that he has not, in fact, dealt with it at all. Worse, his wife and children have become estranged, and his brother's life is unravelling as much as his own. His life is disorientation, memory without hooks to hold them within his mind. He wakes, he eats, he sleeps, he forgets.
We meet Arvid in a very confused state. He has 'awoken' outside a bookstore, with dirty, scratched palms and a bruised eye. He can't remember much of how he arrived there, or why he chose to return to the store where he worked, years ago. He was an author of mild success, forgotten now, not immortalised in death like Yeats or Kafka or Schulz, as he might have wished.
The novel is written in a first person perspective, which allows us deep insight into Arvid's mind. Action trigger thoughts which trigger memories of times that have long passed, more often than not to do with his father, a strong, stubborn, emotionally withdrawn man who Arvid felt never quite connected with any of his sons. Any memory at all will invariably contain a reference to his father, a brief thought, a whispered lament, an essay-like discourse on regret.
'I close my eyes, I hear the wind in the treetops, and it is a good sound. I have heard it both summer and winter on hundreds of cross-country treks with my father, when we rested and my breath was not the only sound I could hear, and sometimes the wind in the treetops was the only things that was good.'
This is typical of Arvid's thoughts. He is wistful for life with his father, but strangely none of his memories come across as particularly pleasant. Perhaps that is why he remembers them with such force. He regrets not the father he had, but the father he wanted. Unfortunately for Arvid - and for every child who grows to become a man or woman - we are stuck with the father we receive, for better or worse. If we cannot quite figure out how to be a parent to our own children, then how dare we expect such achievements from them? But of course we do, and that is the crux of Petterson's novel, the second of his to be translated into English, and nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, a prize which he was to win in 2007 for his novel, Out Stealing Horses.
The novel is not only concerned with fathers. There is a strong current of loneliness which runs throughout. Arvid becomes involved with a young woman who lives in an apartment across from his own, they watch each other through their windows, communicating in silence. One particularly evocative scene happens shortly after they have become lovers. '...I see her turning and looking back at me, and we just stand there and then she lets her dressing gown drop ... Her skin shines dimly and is whiter than anything else I can see, and she lifts both hands and lays their palms against the pane, and then I do the same, lift my hands and lay the palms against the pane, and it's as if it was just that one window, a few millimetres of glass between her and me...' A metaphor for the entire novel, Arvid is a man who comes close to, but cannot quite, touch the lives of others, or be touched himself. He tries, but there is always that thin pane of glass between his fingers and theirs.
The novel is not without awkwardness, however. 'Give me any car at all, as long as it's a Japanese and begins with an m and ends with an a.' This sort of cleverness feels flat and forced - why not just say you like Mazda's? There are many little literary tricks scattered throughout this book, and most of them fall flat. They come across as being written by the author rather than thought by the character. However, it is worth wondering whether or not these stumbles are the fault of the author, or the translator. In the Wake could not be confused with a novel originally written in English, there are too many pages of writing that would be considered too 'flat'.
For all its loneliness, sadness, withdrawn emotions and awkward phrasings, Petterson's novel is worthy. It is not difficult to fall into the claustrophobic, introverted world of Arvid, and the journey is well worth the effort. While Arvid's issues with his father are not resolved - and how could they be, for he is dead - there is a sense that he is progressing towards something further in his life that could help him. Whether that is hitting 'rock bottom' with his suicidal brother, or embracing a woman he likes but not loves, we cannot know. But there is something happening within his breast, some stir of the heart that was not present at the beginning of the novel. Growth, then.