‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson (2012) – 282 pages Translated by Don Bartlett Grade: C
I Refuse’ is the novel where I have finally realized that I have overdosed on Norwegian realism. This is Norway where the fathers are all alcoholic trolls, and their sons are all hurt and self-centered. This is Norway where no one has a sense of humor in spite of their problems.
‘I Refuse’ has the traits we have all come to know and put up with in Norwegian realism. It is cheerless, depressing, ominous, fatalistic, brooding, portentous, bleak, dismal, listless, humorless, and grim. One could easily believe that ‘I Refuse’ is a parody of a Scandinavian realistic novel, but there is no evidence that Per Petterson is in on the joke.
Here we have two sons, Jim and Tommy. Jim’s father ran off when Jim was small. Tommy’s mother ran off, but his father stuck around to beat up their children until Tommy retaliated with a baseball bat. Then Tommy’s father ran off too. Jim and Tommy are best friends as kids until Jim goes off the rails mentally. Now it is 35 years later, and they run into each other near Oslo. So far this is your typical Norway story, and it doesn’t get any better than this. It is no help that we switch back and forth from these guys’ grim childhoods to their unhappy adulthoods.
In all these stories of sons who have mean decrepit drunk fathers, there is one thing they forget to mention. At some point, the sons grow up and are likely to become mean and decrepit and drunk too, but most of all self-centered.
There is little dialogue in ‘I Refuse’ which is a good thing, because the dialogue that is there reeks.
“Do you ever hear from your mother or father?”
“Don’t you think that’s sad?”
“No, I don’t think it’s sad. I don’t give a damn.”
“I can understand that.”
So if you are looking for scintillating witty conversation, avoid ‘I Refuse’ at all costs.
I have had it with these self-absorbed Norwegian novels.
During the last couple of years I have read and truly enjoyed two fine lively exuberant novels by Enrique Vila-Matas of Spain, and I have always liked the work of Spanish author Javier Marias. Perhaps I will seek out some more excellent novels from Spain to read.