On the hundredth anniversary of Roald Amundsen’s successful quest to be the first to reach the South Pole, it’s nice to pay homage by reviewing a Norwegian book,
It’s Fine by Me (1992) is an early novel – only just translated into English in 2011 – by the author of the superb Out Stealing Horses, which in 2007 won the IMPAC and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. (It was also shortlisted in 2008 for the Best Translated Book Award but this one is translated by Don Bartlett, not by Ann Born, who died in 2011).
When I first began reading It’s Fine by Me, its adolescent narrator immediately put me in mind of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, but no, this pensive bildungsroman is more of a sobering meditation than a novel of existential teenage angst. Holden Caulfield rejects the world he lives in, rebelling from not much more than its ‘phony’ values but Audun Sletton in Per Petterson’s novel has in his short life suffered real tragedy, the loss of his brother and the ongoing threat of an abusive father. While both novels explore teenage alienation, rebellion and identity, the disaffected youth in It’s Fine by Me has a genuinely melancholy past and present.
‘It’s fine by me’, he says repeatedly as one person after another lets him down, but of course it’s not fine when teachers probe into matters too painful to talk about. It’s not fine when the boyfriend with whom his sister goes to live does nothing to show that he will treat her well and then attempts to cajole his younger brother with shallow job offers. It’s not fine either when he makes the painful realisation that the reason his friend Arvid has gone berserk after his father gets bashed by a gang is because Arvid loves his father. Audun has never loved his father, a brutal sadistic man who haunts his present reality and pervades his memory with painful moments from the past. It’s not really fine when he can’t maintain his adolescent dignity after he gets beaten up either.
Throughout the novel there are intriguing references to European (presumably Nordic) authors, because Audun, who wants to be a writer, reads voraciously from Arvid’s father’s bookshelves. He is most captivated by those most masculine of authors Ernest Hemingway and Jack London (an author I haven’t read since I read The Call of the Wild in childhood). Like these heroes, Audun moves through hostile landscapes both urban and rural, and there is an ominous mood of foreboding. Danger is never far away.
He would like to be a hero, but there are moments of bathos which will bring a wry smile. Leaving school early doesn’t bring the adult life of action that he longs for because he ends up working in a dreary printing factory. He doesn’t get to avenge the acts of violence that upset him and he doesn’t get to rescue his sister either. Too proud to confide in anyone, he is finally unmanned when his emotions erupt in a cascade of tears, and in so doing learns what it is to be a man after all.
Unlike Holden Caulfield who will irritate all but the most tolerant of adults from time to time, Audun retains a reader’s sympathy. I’m not a fan of sentimental books by any means but It’s Fine By Me pulls at the heartstrings. My favourite moment in the book is when Old Abrahamsen says:
I don’t have tell you, Audun, you know for yourself. You’re eighteen years old, It’s a tricky time. There’s so much going on, and some say it was the best time they ever had, and some say it was the worst, and they’re both right. People live different lives. People are different. Some get the cream, always, oh, I’ve seen them. But one thing is certain: at some point everything changes. You’re not eighteen all your life. That may not be much of a consolation, but take a hint from someone who’s on the outside looking in: you’ll get through this. I’m dead sure. (p164)
I have a copy of I Curse the River of Time on Mt TBR, I must get to it soon…
Author: Per Petterson
Title: It’s Fine by Me
Publisher: Harvill Secker 2011
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: It’s Fine By Me