Per Petterson: To Siberia

by Rachel Baker on March 7, 2010

Let’s play a little word association game for a minute: If I say the word Siberia, what do you think of?  For me, the words would be Cold, Desolate, Punishment.  I suspect for most of us, that’s what we conjure in our minds when we hear the word.

Not for the sixty year old narrator of To Siberia by Per Petterson (translated by Anne Born).  To “Sistermine” (as she is called by her brother, Jesper), Siberia is a place better than where she grew up.  Her dream is to get on the Trans-Siberian rail all the way through, to experience this new place where people know how to be warm even in the coldest of times, a place where people are friendly and peaceful:

“And besides I shall sit on the train and look out of the window and talk to people, and they will tell me what their lives are like and what their thoughts are and ask me why I have come all the long way from Denmark.  Then I will answer them: ‘I have read about you in a book.’ And then we’ll drink hot tea from the samovar and be quiet together just looking.”

Our narrator comes from a loveless family.  Her grandfather and grandmother are almost never in the same room together. Her grandfather appears to be extremely disappointed in her father for being a Master Joiner, not a farmer:

“Now, Master Joiner,” he said, and I could not understand what was wrong with my father’s name that it could not be spoken aloud, his name was Magnus, Grandfather knew that well enough, but his voice sounded different from the one I was used to: “Why don’t you go home if you won’t drink with your own father?  You were never like the others, were you?  You have never known why, born in pain and begotten in more than pain, a thorn in the flesh from the start.  Go home to your warm house and leave the boy with me.”

How harsh is that?!  This statement is said in public during a scuttle between father and grandfather in a bar. And further evidence of this is grandfather leaving father nothing in his will after he died.

Her mom and dad aren’t much warmer towards each other:

“My mother is velvet, my mother is iron.  My father often stays silent and sometimes over dinner he picks up the burning hot pan by its iron handle and holds it until I have filled my plate, and when he puts it back I can see the red marks on his hand.”

We learn a great deal about mother, but she’s not really a central part of this story.  Mother says very few things, but we get the sense she wears the pants in the family.  Father tries his very best to provide for the family, but times are tough, and he ends up losing the business.

There is a stark difference between mother and father, and while I don’t recall if the book mentions how they met, there appears to be a class difference.  Father is from a family of farmers and (I think) mother fancies she is from a family of fishermen.  Though apparently, this is not accurate.  Mother, I would say, wishes she were somewhere else and is extremely disappointed with the way her life has turned out.

For the most part, To Siberia is about the narrator’s recollection of the loveless childhood she had.  We follow her memories through the years before WWII to the end of the war and then two years in her twenties.  The book is touted to be about this great bond between sister and brother. While there was a lot of memories that encompassed the things she did with her brother, I got the feeling it was the type of bond you’d find between any younger sibling and his/her older sibling who realized family life was pretty lacking in the affection and they had to stick together to find some semblance of love and understanding.  Our narrator idolized her brother.  He looked after her and tried to include her in most everything he did.  I don’t think the book is about the bond as much as it tells of the things that made her life not so full of despair.

Interestingly, her childhood story is basically over when she is almost fifteen and Jesper (her brother) goes away because he is part of a resistance movement against Nazi occupation.  It is also at this point in the story, when there’s some questions about the sexuality of brother and sister which leaves the reader to wonder what has happened previously between the two children that shared a small bedroom.  I did find this an interesting segment – wondering why it was put in the storyline at all. I believe the narrator’s budding sexuality was a metaphor for the end of childhood, coinciding with Jesper leaving and the end of this time period of the story.  Life would never be the same with Jesper leaving AND the ‘age of innocence’ was over.

She’s twenty-two the next time we see her (Part III).  She’s lived in Amsterdam previous to this. Now she’s living with an old Aunt, working in her Aunt’s coffee shop.  Over the years, she’s kept in touch with Jesper via letters every few weeks.  He’s in Morocco (his childhood dream), and they are planning on seeing each other when he comes home. She meets a man in the coffee shop who is smitten with her and though she fights it, she begins to warm up to him.  But, not in the way we think.  She becomes pregnant and shortly after that, she has a letter from Jesper and decides it time to go home.

When she gets home, she finds Jesper is not there. And nothing has changed.

“How dare you come into the house of sorrow in this way? Have you no shame?” Her hands were clasped in front of her, and I saw the flaming sword.
I turned to my father.  He still sat in his chair looking down at his lap.  I stared at him until he had to raise his eyes, and he shook his head like an old man and turned away and looked into the wall.  He had nothing to give, and I would not beg.”

The story ends with her living in a different town, at twenty-three years old, pregnant, helping on a farm with a childhood friend’s uncle and his family.  Sadly, we never know if she gets to Siberia, or if she every feels the warmth she so desperately desires.

This 245 page novel is sad and dark.  There is striking symbolism throughout the book.  The most prevalent is the temperature.  Its always cold to our narrator.  She lives in a physically cold world, but also an emotionally cold world.  And she has become numb.  We see it in the few references to sex and the words she uses to describe her own child’s conception.  We see it in the way she describes her mother, and the scene setting surrounding where her mother is at any given moment.  The only place she finds warmth and solace are in cows and her dream of going to Siberia.

The story is told in a matter-of-fact way, and I was astounded by the honesty of the narrator fifty-something years later, beginning the story from the eyes of her six or seven year old self. There aren’t many authors that can translate memories over decades to include the innocent thoughts and interpretations of events and situations of a seven year old and make his/her reader believe them.  And as the narrator grew so did her interpretations of different events.

I don’t know if I would classify this book as one of the best I’ve read, but technically, its a winner. The most interesting thing I realized after finishing the book was, in a strange way, I was detached from the story.  I didn’t love or hate any of the characters. Its striking to me, actually, how detached I am to the narrator or any of the characters. If this is what the author was striving for, then he succeeded.  And I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a book where I felt nothing, but I did enjoy To Siberia.

If you are someone who likes metaphors and symbolism more than having the thoughts and feelings of the characters spelled out to you; or if you want to experience a well-written book where you may feel nothing for the characters (a rare occurance to be sure), I highly recommend To Siberia by Per Petterson.

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