I taught English for seventeen years. That is not a confession.  One thing we worked on when I taught seniors was irony.  I suppose seniors in high school are ripe for it since they are all focused on leaving the place that they most do not want to leave.

We rehearsed the normal definitions of the concept, dividing them into verbal, situational and dramatic irony.  All seniors love Oedipus the King. The ironies of all kinds are rife (let me paraphrase here): Oedipus – “I am going to hunt down the king’s murderer and seek vengeance;”  Oedipus, again – “I left my father and mother to avoid killing one and marrying the other;” the Audience, Greek or modern – “OMG, don’t you see? You are the culprit.” And on and on and on.

The ironic would have gone the way of metonymy if life itself were not so full of it.  And if a book is as full of ironies, chances are that it is a fair picture of life.  Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses is both full of irony and truth about living and observing life.  It is widely agreed that it meets the test. The truth that it would NOT make a good read for seniors anxious to live life rather than examine it is all to its credit. Besides, the tripartite definition of the concept is far too clumsy to describe what goes on in Petterson’s book.

Start with the title, Out Stealing Horses. It is a password of sorts, used during the resistance to Nazi occupation in the war. As such, it is both symbolic and ironic. It symbolizes the danger involved – the consequence is well-known, even to Jon and Trond – and the verbal irony is clear.  No, in neither instance, the war or the episode with Barkald’s horses, was stealing involved. It is further ironic in the way Jon uses it.  He uses the phrase literally, but at the same time we know – at least later on – that he used it to cover a far more serious happening of his life, one so serious that only a password with a history could convey enough significance.  When Trond tells his father that he and Jon were “out stealing horses” his father’s reaction is ironic.  Immediately, he might think his cover has been blown, that his son knows a truth that he has not revealed, one that he may not yet know himself. There are secrets here, just as in Oedipus, that when revealed will render life long and life changing irony. Some of it may become clear when Trond hears the same words from Franz as the World War II stories of his father are passed along.

An irony that is more pronounced at the time it is read is Trond’s assertion, “I trusted my father.” When I read these words, I flushed with gratitude that there were fathers who could be trusted.  Mine could not. But within a second, the thought came, “If he has to say it so flatly, it will turn out not to be true.” More succinctly, “Fat chance.”  No father can be trusted, at least no more fully than any man, and should not be trusted in the way a young son does. The boy must say it if we are to know he believes it. If a grown man were to say it, we would be immediately convinced he was eulogizing or outright lying. Of course, one beauty of the narrative is that the reader gets to know as does the boy, little by little, what the grown-old narrator has already found out. The trust of boys, of sons carries its own risks.

I am certainly not going to catalog each irony that appears in Out Stealing Horses but permit me one more, so emotionally evocative that it is perhaps the best example of how very good Petterson can be, and that is very, very good: Trond is leaving the village by the river where he spent the summer with his father. He will return to Oslo now.  The irony is verbal and dramatic. It is also neither of those.  Verbal irony unfolds when the reader hears a character say something he clearly believes is true but is in fact opposed to what is known to be so.  In this section, Trond is forced to say he understands and that it is OK. But he tells us he is not sure he understands and that it is definitely not OK.  The reader knows that Trond does not understand and easily agrees that it is not OK.  The reader also knows that it is less OK than even that, thus, dramatic irony.  This scene would work without ironic twists, but it would then only be sentimental, something the older Trond guards against.  As it is, the reader sees a father bidding his son farewell, not for a week or two nor for a month or two, but for much, much longer than that.  We are aghast – we scream out at Oedipus, “It’s is you; you are your father’s killer.” – we cannot understand, like Trond, how a man, even a man who barehanded pulls up nettles, can do this without tearing out his own eyes.

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