THERE IS NO sad like the Scandinavian sad. Soren Kierkegaard, Ibsen and Strindberg, Knut Hamsun, Ingmar Bergman...all that hard, clear light that illuminates every detail yet brings so little warmth. Yes, Henning Mankell and the dragon tattoo guy have detected capacities for ultraviolence and hate crime under the stoic endurance, the low expectations, the habit of disappointment, but even so.... How much of our Midwestern taciturnity, our evasion of confrontation, our willingness to put up with being overlooked, our repeated failure to rise to the emotional occasion comes down to our own iteration of the Scandinavian Sad, established as our regional ground tone by the immigrations of the last half of the 19th century?
Per Petterson does sad here not quite as memorably as he did in Out Stealing Horses, but still convincingly. It is 1989. In the 1970s, Arvid, our narrator, threw over his university scholarship and its ticket into the professional class to get a factory job and become a Communist Party organizer. But now the Berlin Wall has just come down, so that choice is looking like a dead end. His wife, several years younger, who as a teenager found his Maoist politics exciting, is preparing to divorce him. Their two daughters love singing Beatles songs in the car with him, but their days of doing that are numbered. His mother is dying.
Most of the novel is about Arvid's trying to reach some kind of understanding or closure with his mother, but he has no knack at all for bringing this about. As we learn from a variety of flashbacks, he is a person who never quite hits the right note in any human interaction. He means well, he has deep and true feelings, he loves his mother and his family and his party, but he seems wholly without the necessary instincts. He recalls showing up at his mother's birthday party, prepared to make an eloquent speech in tribute to her, but instead getting drunk, finding he had left the notes for his speech somewhere else, nonetheless clinking his glass for attention and rising to deliver what turned out to be a woefully inadequate speech. He sat down, apologizing to someone he had taken to be his uncle--
"Sorry," I whispered, "I don't think that went very well."
"No, it didn't," he said. "But next time I'm sure it will be better."
I turned to look at him. Suddenly I couldn't recall the last time I saw him, or if I ever had seen him.
"You're my uncle, aren't you?" I said.
"No," he said, "but that's all right."
Arvid would make a kind of poignant comic relief in most novels, or in a play by Chekhov. Here, he's the center of things, and his inability to express what he feels seems like a tragedy. In the novel's final paragraph, he tells us, "I was searching for something very important, a very special thing, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it." He fills his mouth with pieces of straw and chews them ("they were hard and sharp and cut my tongue") and sits, "waiting for my mother to stand up and come to me."
There is no sad like Scandinavian sad.