A Book Translated to English
To meet this challenge, I chose Per Petterson’s newest novel, I Refuse. It was first published in Norway in 2012 and, in 2015, it was translated to English by Don Bartlett for its first printing in the United States.
I Refuse is a grim story about a lost friendship between Tommy Berggren and his boyhood friend Jim. It begins when, after thirty-five years, the two meet unexpectedly on a bridge near Oslo, Norway. They hardly recognize one another and Jim’s strange behavior hints at something unstable.
Petterson’s narration then jumps back to 1962 when Tommy is thirteen and is trapped in an impossible family situation. His mother has abandoned them and the father regularly beats Tommy and his three younger sisters. Everything changes when Tommy takes a bat to their father. On their own, the children are sure they can manage. But the siblings are separated when town officials send them to be raised in different homes.
Jumps between present and past form the framework of this story, which mostly is told by Jim, Tommy and Tommy’s sister Siri in varying stream of consciousness accounts. Separate third-person sections help to explain the rest as Tommy, Jim and Siri first lean on each other and then go in different directions. Despite friendship and personal connections, Petterson seems to be suggesting that people ultimately break from others and face their struggles alone.
Petterson’s characters use the phrase “I refuse” at various times in the book as they face death, reconciliation and other struggles. Whether his characters want to make their relationships work is the central question. Even if they do, perhaps they are simply doomed to go it alone.
Themes of family relationships, mental health, Christianity, socialism and communism weigh heavily on Petterson’s characters. In the present, Tommy and Jim spiral through their own middle-aged crises and whether they make it out whole is left for the reader to figure. Some readers may not like the ending, which is abrupt and very open ended. I didn’t mind it, although I do wonder what Petterson means to say about the future of these people.
Although the story is certainly heavy and depressing, I enjoyed reading I Refuse and imagining the towns in Norway and the Norwegian way of life. The best scenes are when Tommy and Jim are together as teenagers and my favorite part is when they go skating on Lake Aurtjern. I like how skating with ease on a frozen lake in Norway is a normal part of their lives. Skating here in the U.S. is more often an organized family activity at an indoor rink that requires renting skates and joining a rotating circle of skaters under a disco ball, during a set “free skate” time.
It’s also interesting to think about what goes into translating a novel. Choosing the right words and phrases to carry the author’s meanings and emotions is no doubt a difficult job. Perhaps it’s a team effort between author and translator. I read that Petterson often goes back and changes words the translator has chosen, having the final say. I also read that this practice has led to some bad feelings. Certainly a writer’s prerogative, however.
If you like stream of consciousness stories and looking at the jumbled thoughts of troubled characters, you will like I Refuse. There’s a good deal of jumping around, but it’s an otherwise easy read.
Follow along as I work my way through my 16 in 16 Challenge!
Book 1 – A Book You Can Finish in a Day: The Good Neighbor by A.J. Banner
Book 2 – A Book in a Genre You Typically Don’t Read: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson
Book 3 – A Book with a Blue Cover: The Vacationers by Emma Straub
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