Where new writing finds its voice


Helen Cox

By Jostein Gaarder, translated by James Anderson
Phoenix House, 2000

Maya’s key theme – the geocentric nature of humanity and its destructive impact upon the Earth – suggests that it could have been added to the glut of socio-political rants in fiction. Instead, true to form, the Oslo-born author Jostein Gaarder has created a powerful and astute work of metafiction.

Gaarder’s talent is such that his success is seemingly effortless and this novel, first published in 1999, contains notions and perspectives of such a sophisticated and subtle nature that it reads as if penned last week by an expert in the evolutionary or sociological fields. He offers a snapshot of how educated people of the imminent new millennium perceived our chances of survival and exactly what the world meant to them at that time.

Gaarder triumphs with this piece through the intricate characterisation of some rather unusual individuals and an almost obsessive attention to plot detail. In this novel, the author has continuously chosen the quirky, less obvious option at every narrative crossroad, allowing his writing to assume a vitality and sparkle one seldom finds in works of philosophical or discursive significance. It is apparent, however, that this approach is not random in any way, as the piece purposely and progressively explores the relationship between reality and the illusory through his central characters. These include a Spanish couple with a family secret, a rebellious young activist, and, the main protagonist, a mysterious English writer: a fortysomething evolutionary biologist conducting field studies in Fiji. He has a particularly striking view of the world and his place within it and the gradual unveiling of his past enables Gaarder to demonstrate his mastery in posing questions, withholding answers, and still leaving the reader satisfied by the time they turn to the final page.

As a whole, Maya flaunts Gaarder’s cunning authorship to an even greater extent than works such as Sophie’s World as he progressively constructs a web of theoretical discussions and perspectives so conflicting that it is impossible to know where Gaarder’s own loyalties might lie. In this way he covertly draws the reader into an array of profound societal and historical debates, which enables them to draw parallels between the fantastical story they are engaging with on the page and their own beliefs and perspectives. This method is refreshing and intriguing, and challenges the reader to constantly interpret and re-examine their own beliefs concerning myriad anthropological, evolutionary and theological issues which lie at the heart of this intriguing text.