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2 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

In the Wake


In the Wake Cover




Chapter One

It was something to do with a face. I had never seen it

before, yet I did recognise it, but as it comes to me now,

the thought of it is unpleasant. Someone gave me a gin.

I had had enough already. I see my hand around the

glass, the glass is full to the brim, and then I do not

remember anything more except that face, and now I

stand with my forehead against the glass of this

bookshop door, and I kick at the door. They have to let

me in. I do not know how long I have been standing

here. I have been out of this world and now I am back,

and I don’t feel well. Why doesn’t someone come and

let me in? I kick the door. People are passing on the

pavement behind me, but I don’t turn round, just

squeeze my face to the glass and my nose is flattened

and I stare at the rows of books. It is dark in there, but

light outside. It is morning, the sun feels hot on my

neck, but I dare not turn round. That glass of gin was

yesterday and miles and miles from this street in

central Oslo.

Someone gives a little cough and says: “I don’t think

there’s anyone there yet. It’s probably too early.”

I know that voice, it’s the lady from the kiosk next


door. I have known it for years. She is right behind me.

I could pick her out with my eyes shut in the middle of

Aker Brugge on a crowded Saturday afternoon in June.

I’ve been buying Petterøe 3 tobacco and Dagbladet and

a Kvikk Lunsj chocolate bar from her since 1981. And

then I remember. I do not work here any more. I

haven’t worked here for three years. I stand perfectly

still holding my breath and wait for her to go away. It

is a good idea not to breathe, my side hurts every time

I suck the air in. But then I have to breathe, and there

is a squeak from my throat or further down, and the

pain in my side is there at once. It is lung cancer, I’m

convinced it is, and I feel so sad because I have lung

cancer and will certainly not be here for long.

It is quiet behind me now so she must have gone,

and then I start to cry, with my nose pressed to the

glass door, and I look in at the rows of books, see that

the shop has grown since I stopped working there,

more floor space with more shelves for many more

books I shall never read because I am going to die of

lung cancer.

I am forty-three. When my father was this age I had

just been born, and he never touched a cigarette in his

whole life. He only had a drink with Sunday dinner;

one pint because he deserved it. The body should be a

temple of life, he said, not a whited sepulchre. He was

a skier and a boxer, and when he breathed, the air went

straight into his lungs, and did no harm at all for the


air was much cleaner then. If he ever coughed, it was

because he had a cold, and he rarely did. Now he is

dead, but through no fault of his own. If I die now it

will definitely be my fault. That is the difference

between us, and it is a big difference.

I cough and look down; I see my hands. They have

an emptiness I cannot account for and they are dirty,

there are grazes on both palms, but I feel no pain. They

just hang there. Then I remember a high grey wall and

its rough surface, I am falling and holding on at the

same time, and I remember utterly still water in a pool,

chlorine blue water with black lines on the bottom. It is

a public swimming pool, and it is not yet open, it is

quite silent, only a man all in white walking by the side

of the pool, and I try to work out just where it is that I

am standing watching this from, but I can’t. I am all

over the place, I am like God, I am omnipresent. I can

see the clock on the wall quite clearly, but I cannot

make out what the time is. There is a palm tree in one

corner. It is Bislett baths, I think. Then the grey wall is

Bislett stadium. But I have not been to Bislett stadium

since I was ten and with my father and saw Raufoss

beat Vålerenga FC two-nil. He was shattered. Didn’t

say a word all the way home.

I feel the sun on my neck, it is burning or something

is burning, and maybe it is Sunday. I don’t remember.

I see only my eyes in the glass and the books beyond,

and I don’t know what day it is.


“Go and see what the weather is like,” my brother

would say every time it was Sunday morning and

winter, and I would have to get out of the bottom bunk

and go to the window and pull the heavy curtain aside

and look out through the frost flowers.

“It’s sunny,” I say, “sunshine and fine weather.”

“Sunshine,” he says, “fucking shit.”

“Fucking shit,” I say, and the snow was so white it

hurt your eyes, and the smell of frying bacon floated up

from downstairs, and we knew that he had been awake

for several hours, preparing the skis and loading the

rucksacks. Now they were ready in the hall with the

thermos and sandwiches in the side pockets and extra

sweaters and socks and ski scrapers and three lots of

Swix varnish in case of a sudden thaw or if the mercury

dropped, and two oranges apiece and perhaps a Kvikk

Lunsj chocolate bar if we were lucky, and the rucksack

would be sure to weigh twenty kilos each.

But that is a lifetime ago, and he has been dead for

nearly six years. I remember an office on Drammensvei

with a red cross on the door, a fireman is showing a

video from the inside of the boat with a landscape of

half-naked, prone bodies: THE CORRIDOR OF DEATH, the

front page of Verdens Gang said, that video was on the

inside of my eyes; skin, I see skin, velvety dull in the

flickering light of a lamp moving onwards, restless

shadows between elbows and hips, shoulder blades and

necks, a sea of hushed softness where nothing moves


but the light which brings life to what is not living. The

camera runs and pauses for a moment before what has

turned black, where the flames have devoured it all,

finished the job, and then it swings into a cabin where

a woolly penguin lies alone on a bunk, the door to the

bathroom ajar, the dark crack hiding the bath’s

obvious secret. My feet are freezing as I stand here with

my nose to the door remembering the cold creeping

into my feet that time in that office, and my stomach

wildly burning. But my face was calm, and the woman

sitting next to me said:

“Rewind, for heaven’s sake, I have to see that

penguin one more time.” An air-raid shelter in

Baghdad was what I thought, for a year had passed, I

do not know where, and it was spring 1991 with

surgical bombing, electronic warfare, a war on the

screen, a video game.

“Rewind,” she said again and again, and the fireman

did, goddamnit, and she turned to stone.

I really don’t feel well. The cold crawls from my feet

to my hips and I start to tremble, my teeth chatter, my

forehead shudders against the glass as it does when

you sit on a bus with your head against the window,

gazing out, and the diesel engine makes everything

vibrate. I think I am going to be sick, but I mustn’t be

sick here. People go by on the pavement, and it can’t be

Sunday because I hear from their voices that they are

young, students from the business school next door,


and as they pass me they stop talking, and I will not

turn and look at them looking at me. I look down at my

shoes. They are scuffed, my shirt is hanging out of my

trousers below the unzipped jacket, and I see my belt

dangling in front of my half-open flies. They were not

like that yesterday. When did those trousers come

undone? Perhaps I have been raped. Perhaps someone

dragged me into a doorway on my way past Bislett

stadium or into a changing room at Bislett baths and

grossly abused my butt while I was out of this world. I

close my eyes and concentrate, hunting for traces all

through my body; some remnant soreness, and what I

do discover is that I feel wretched. It isn’t easy to say

what is what. I have to see a doctor. I may test positive.

There are people in this town who would not blink

twice at planting a seed in my blood, a virus that will

tick and go deep inside what is me and one day after

several years, when I least expect it, explode like a time

bomb, one day when my life does not look as it does

right now, a day when I have the sun on my face.

I take a deep breath. The pain in my side damn near

makes me jump. It’s my lungs, I had forgotten. I groan.

Someone behind me stops and says something I do not

want to hear. I stand very still, waiting, and then I hum

a bit, and the someone walks off again. I raise my right

hand to feel whether my hair is wet. It is bone dry and

feels as stiff as a doormat and far from clean. I could do

with a shower, a shower and a steam bath. I like steam


baths these days. I did not before. I always dreaded the

walk from the bus stop to Torggata baths and then up

the stone steps to the cloakroom and the showers, and

it was cold in the changing room and in the shower

room before the water was turned on, but when the

warm water ran through my hair and down my neck,

over shoulders and stomach, it felt good, and I closed

my eyes and wanted to go on standing there. It was

fine, for a moment everything was just fine.

“Open your eyes and come along,” he said and

opened the door to the steam bath and I went in,

because nobody had told me that you could say no. I

went in and there was a blazing creature with a power

that sucked each breath from my throat much faster

than I could keep up with, and very soon I was empty,

and fighting for air.

“It’s important to sweat all the shit out,” he said, “turn

your insides out and really cleanse yourself,” but I could

not sweat. I stood in the steam, dry and thin, and saw the

naked men along the benches, heads in hands,

glistening, panting, with their big stomachs on their

thighs and their big cocks, and none of them could speak

because the creature had swallowed the air and pushed

against the walls, and there was no space left for anything

else. And I could not sweat. I was eight years old, my skin

burned, and I did not know it was important to be

cleansed, that the inside of my body was not clean, where

my thoughts lived, and the soul.


I walked unsteadily across the floor to the trickle of

water running from a tap on the wall and into a

porcelain sink, and I drank and drank, and when I had

finished he came over, filled his hands with water and

let it run over the stones so the stove spat loudly and

fresh steam poured forth, and the men on the benches

grumbled. He laughed and bent down, put his hands

flat on the floor and swung himself up into a handstand,

stretched his legs up together and with his heels

lightly touching the burning wall he smiled upside

down and started to do push-ups with his head tapping

the floor and his legs straight up. His cock bounced

against his flat stomach with a sound I could have done

without, his muscles swelled under his shiny skin, and

sweat poured down his chest. He could breathe where

no-one else could, and I counted to myself half aloud:

ten, eleven, twelve and on as I always did when he did

that kind of thing. I kept my eyes on his body, up and

down, up and down, and knew I would never look like

that if I lived to be a hundred, not that graceful, not that

solid, and I remember the hospital chapel where we

had to fetch the coffins many years later. They were

ranged in a line along the wall, and outside, the long

black cars waited in line on the drive. We could see

them through the windows, the cars stood quite still

with their back doors open, and one driver had his

back turned and his elbow against the bonnet,

smoking and looking down at Holberggate, and the


man from the undertakers cleared his throat and said:

“First, I ought perhaps to say that the coffins probably

are not as heavy as might be expected.” He ran a hand

through his hair, looking desperate, and we glanced at

each other, my brother and I, and then we bent down,

took hold of the handles and lifted, and we just stared

straight ahead when we realised he was right.

I am so tired. I lean my whole weight against the

door. I could fall asleep now, and maybe I am asleep,

and dreaming, or maybe remembering a dream. I am

in the apartment at Veitvet. My mother and father are

there, and my two younger brothers. I know they are

dead, and I know that they know, but we do not talk

about it. I try to figure out how they could have come

back. Suddenly I cannot remember where their graves

are, but it can’t be far away, maybe on the lawn by the

hedge beside the road. The apartment looks as it did

then, in May of that year; half-empty bookshelves, a

pile of pictures on the coffee table, cardboard boxes on

the floor. The clock on the wall has stopped. They go

around helping me, giving me things they think I

should have, and I find books I imagine my daughters

would like. I take a few small things for myself and

sneak them away, put them in the pocket of my jacket,

and then I feel bad because I am cheating my brother,

so I take them out again. All the while I can hear them

talking softly in the living room. I go up to the next

floor and into the room that once was mine. I open the


window and put my head out. On the balcony below

me, my father is standing in the sun. He stands quite

calmly, his eyes closed and arms crossed. He fills his

shirt completely. It is quiet, he is fine, but I don’t like

the neighbours to see a dead man standing on the

balcony sunning himself. I close the window and go

down again. At the bottom of the stairs is the old

wooden bookcase with carvings along the top and the

sides. I sit on the floor and lean my head against the

middle shelf as I have done so many times before. I

press against the books and then everything broadens

out and I can look in. There are rows of books in many

layers, it is a whole room with yellow light streaming in

from a window I have never seen before, and it fills me

with wonder, and yet everything is familiar. I take hold

of Tolstoy with one hand and Nansen with the other

and pull myself right in. It closes behind me and the

whole time I hear them talking softly in the living


I straighten up, my face lets go of the door and I

stand without a foothold in the world, listening. I hear

no steps from either side and then I undo my jeans and

push my shirt down as well as I can as fast as I can, and

try to do up my flies. It’s not easy, my empty hands are

stiff and have hardly any feeling, and the buttons are

obstinate. One of them gets into the wrong buttonhole,

but I get it done eventually. I try to do my jacket up, but

the zip is ruined, it’s hanging loose, several teeth are


missing at the bottom so I can’t fit the ends together.

Maybe someone has tried to tear it off. I think about

the dream and remember I had it several years ago,

that I wrote it down, that I put it away somewhere. So

I have not been asleep. I look around me on both sides.

It is all quiet on the street. I take a few steps along the

big display window, the glass glitters, it is spring

sweeping in from the fjord and brushing my neck as it

passes, and the latest books are behind the glass. Rick

Bass has brought out another collection. I have been

waiting for it. I like his stories, they are full of

landscape and air and you can smell the pine needles

and the heather a long way off.

I must get out of this town. I clench my fists and

then I get it. My briefcase has gone. I turn and look

back, but there’s only a bundle of newspapers by the

door. I look all the way down the street, past the business

school to the city workers’ offices on the corner,

but there’s nothing there, not a shadow, nothing but

fag ends students have dropped on the pavement and

an “open” sign outside the little sixties café.

It was only an old leather briefcase of the kind

working people used a long time ago, they had them on

their laps in the bus on the way to work, and in them

the Arbeiderbladet and sandwich box and betting slip.

We found three of them left in the bedroom cupboard

when we cleared out the apartment. None of them had

been used, so he must have been thinking ahead to the


days of his pension and bought them cheap out of

surplus stock, and they had lasted longer than he had

expected. He had written his name in marking ink on

the inside of the flap in letters he learned at school

some time in the twenties, and as my brother used a

yuppie briefcase I took all three. I use them constantly,

there have been shots of me in the paper carrying one

of those cases, and when people come up behind me

calling and I turn round, they say: “Hi, Arvid, I

recognised you by the briefcase.”

There was a fat notebook in that case almost filled

with writing, and my glasses which cost 2000 kroner

and a book by Alice Munro, Friend of My Youth. I am

reading it for the third time, I have all her books,

because there is a substance there, and a coherence

that does not embellish, but conveys that nothing is in

vain no matter what we have done, if we only look

back, before its’s too late.

I don’t know. I don’t know if that is true. I am a bit

dizzy because I dare not breathe deeply, it hurts so

much every time I try that I hold back, and then there

is not enough oxygen for the brain. I wipe my hands on

my trousers, clear my throat and walk into the kiosk.

There is room for three inside if you keep your elbows

tucked in. She is squeezed between the counter and the

shelves of cigarettes. I take the Dagblad from the stand

and say: “Dagbla’ and a Coke.”

She says nothing and her eyes grow round with


surprise behind her glasses, and they do not look at me

but at something just by my ear. I raise my hand, but

there is only my ear. I try again and she gives a little

cough again and a cautious smile, standing very still.

She does not understand what I say. The sound of the

words is perfectly clear in my head, but they are not the

ones that she is hearing. I don’t know what she hears.

Then I see the fridge full of bottles on the outside of the

counter. Of course, it is self-service. I turn and take

hold of the handle, and because I feel so weak I pull it

rather hard so I will not be embarrassed if it wont open

at the first try. The door flies open, the fridge shakes

and two bottles come sailing out, crash to the floor and

roll away, but they do not break, they are half-litre

plastic ones. One is a Fanta, the other a Coke. I bend

down and wince as the pain in my side stabs at me, and

I pick them up like a very old man and put the Fanta

back in the fridge and the Coke on the counter. She

doesn’t say a word, just looks straight past me with her

round eyes. I feel in my jacket pocket and mercifully

find my wallet there. It is a miracle, I realise that. I open

it cautiously. The Visa card is in its place and the bonus

cards for Shell and Fina and Texaco and the library

cards for Lørenskog and Rælingen. But no sign of notes

and coins. She looks at my wallet and I take out the

Visa card instead and then she stares at it as if it were a

completely new invention. I look at the till. It might

date from the early sixties, and anyway it does not have


a card facility. I don’t know what to do. I am so thirsty

I can think of nothing else. She clears her throat and

says distinctly and very slowly with generous

movements of her mouth so I can read her lips: “You

need not pay. It’s on the house.” She looks straight at

me for the first time and gives me a big smile. It is an

offer I cannot refuse. I ought to say something. I lick

my lips, but my mouth is totally dry, my tongue

swollen, and then I just pick up the Visa card and the

newspaper and the Coke and back out of the kiosk. The

light is blinding, so I walk diagonally across the street

to avoid the sun and over the car park where there used

to be a Texaco station and between the museums

towards the University Hall and the railway station.

Halfway there I can hold out no longer. I stop and open

the bottle. The brown Coke spurts out of the nozzle all

over my trousers, my shoes and the newspaper. I start

to weep. I have been on my way down for a long time,

and now I am there. At rock bottom. I hold the bottle

away from my body until it stops running and then,

weeping, drink what little is left, and I throw the empty

bottle into the nearest litter bin. I chuck the wet paper

after it. Without glasses I couldn’t read it anyway. And

then I walk on.

Copyright © 2002 by Per Petterson. English translation copyright © 2002 by Anne Born. All rights reserved.

Product Details

Petterson, Per
Picador USA
Born, Anne
Literature-A to Z
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
April 2007
Grade Level:
8.31 x 5.52 x 0.67 in

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

In the Wake Used Trade Paper
0 stars - 0 reviews
$9.50 In Stock
Product details 240 pages Picador USA - English 9780312427047 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

In the Wake is the first novel by Norwegian author Per Petterson to appear in the U.S., but hopefully not the last. It is the story of Arvid, an alcoholic not-quite-former writer struggling with the sudden death of most of his family. Arvid's memories unfurl in accidents and mysteries, revealing his search both for his place in the world and the place he may have had in his father's heart. Petterson is definitely an author to watch.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In his impressive American debut, veteran Norwegian novelist Petterson chronicles Arvid Jansen's breakdown in the six years since his parents and brother were killed in a ferry accident (modeled after the 1994 sinking of the MS Estonia). Arvid wanders around Oslo and through the Norwegian countryside, sifting through memories of his stern, ultracompetent father and nursing an infatuation with his attractive neighbor, Mrs. Grinde. After Arvid's architect brother attempts suicide, Arvid tries to reconnect with him and pull them both out of the abyss. Despite the gloomy subject matter, Arvid is a witty, self-deprecating narrator who fought with his family while they were alive and misses them terribly now that they're gone. This novel won several literary prizes in Europe, where the Estonia disaster is well known. The events may not feel as immediate to American readers, but many will find Arvid's path of loss and redemption affecting nonetheless." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "A profound novel. Masterfully written...both timely and timeless. A beautifully enlightening treatise on grief and identity disguised as a novel. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "This is as fine a portrayal of the course of heartache and renewal as any in recent memory."
"Synopsis" by ,
When Arvid Jansen comes-to one morning in the doorway of a bookstore in Oslo, Norway, his grief comes back to him in devastating flashes: His parents and his brothers are dead, he has lost touch with his wife and daughters, abandoned his career as a writer and bookseller. His old life is gone.


In the Wake is the story of Arvid's first steps toward resuming that life, of his gradual confrontation with everything he lost and ultimately with his own role in the disaster that killed his family.


Told with the insight and moral force of his countryman Knut Hamsun, In the Wake is the American debut of a treasured European writer.

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