Per Petterson : I Refuse


When Jonsen, Tommy Berggren’s neighbour and the man who takes him in, is dying, he looks at Tommy and says,

‘You can’t refuse to die, my friend.’

And Tommy replies,

‘Goddammit, of course you can refuse.’

Tommy took action against the circumstances of his life when he was only 13 years old. He, his older sister, and younger twin sisters had been abandoned by their mother some years ago, and left to the violence of their father. He was the town dustman, proud of displaying his strength by lifting loaded dustbins high above his head, but of violent and uncertain temper. He regularly beat his children, not by using his hands, but by kicking them.

Tommy tries to care for his sisters, puts salve on their wounds almost every night, but he is just biding his time. One night after he has angered his father he gets a vicious beating and he knows it is time. He goes to his bedroom and takes the baseball bat he has under his bed, returns to his father and smashes his leg. After this he tries to keep the family together and the house neat and clean but their neighbours, who have been inactive until now, are moved to action and police are involved. The six year-old twin girls are taken in, his older sister Siri also taken in by Christian neighbours, but Tommy is assigned outside the village. This is where Jonsen steps in and takes him. It is an unofficial arrangement as Jonsen is unmarried, but it stays. Jonsen has his own reason for his charitable act.

The central theme of the book is the relationship between Tommy and his best friend Jim. Jim lives with his Christian mother who doesn’t approve of Tommy, Jim has never known his father, whereas Tommy’s mother is not around and he knew his father only too well. In their early years the boys are like twins in that they need no other company and do everything together.

So what goes wrong with their friendship? It’s not just that as he reaches teenage years Jim become close to Tommy’s sister Siri. Can it be an incident that happened when they are racing across the ice on their skates late one night that causes Jim to end their friendship? For Jim has a tender conscience and blames himself for many things while Tommy refuses. He struggles for himself.

The books speaks in the voices of Tommy and Jim, Siri, and Tommy’s mother and moves between the 1960’s and 2006 so the characters are shown at different points in their lives. I found this structure a little confusing at first, as the book starts in the voice of Jim in later life and I had to read back to see who was the man fishing.

Per Petterson writes with poetic clarity,

The moon was mirrored on the ice, and the ice looked as solid as it was. It was a night of blue ice minus ten degrees and the moon lit up parts of the rocky hill behind the lake and drew dark lines down where the ravines ran from the top to the far bank. A fir tree leaned over the lake casting crooked shadows across the ice. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Everything was still. (138)

and sometimes with the ecstatic flow of the Beats,

the boss of the mill…saw what everything could be used for, what could earn money, and the moon shining on fresh snow and the blue anemones on the hillsides and the bluebells in the meadows and the wind over the seas and the wind through the rye and the red ridges in the autumn and the birds that travelled here and left again, yes, everything that came here and left, none of this had any meaning for him…..(36)

Petterson’s subject is human life, joy, sorrow, mistakes, failures. Reading him is a deeply absorbing and uplifting experience.

Pr Peterson: I Refuse (tr. Don Bartlett,Harvill)

Secker 2014)

3 thoughts on “Per Petterson : I Refuse

  1. This has been on my radar for a while, but I have another Pettersson (Out Stealing Horses) on my shelves, which I ought to read before buying any others. His prose style sounds just my type of thing…interesting to see he shares a translator with Knausgaard.

    1. The translator, Don Bartlett, must be an extraordinary worker. As well as translating Knausgaard and Petterson, he has translated about twelve books by Jo Nesbo and the wonderful Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll, and other authors I have yet to explore.

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