Nothing Janne Teller, trans. from the Danish Martin Aitken
On the first day of Year 7, Pierre Anthon stands up and announces "Nothing matters...I've known that for a long time. So nothing's worth doing. I just realized that." He then walks out and spends the rest of his days hanging out in the plum tree outside the commune he lives on.
His classmates have been raised to believe that they matter, that they were going to amount to something, to be someone. They have to walk by Pierre Anthon's plum tree to get to and from school. When they pass, he pelts them with plums and his ideas on life "It's all a waste of time... Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die. That's how it is with everything. The Earth is four billion, six hundred million years old, and you're going to reach one hundred at the most! It's not even worth the bother."
His plums and words find sore spots, and they set out to prove him wrong. The best way the class can think of to prove life has meaning is to make a heap of the things they find meaningful in their lives. Some are objects (sandals you waited for all summer) some are symbols (the flag, the church's crucifix). But it's quickly apparent that the students don't want to part with things that really mean the most to them, so the other students decide. Once you're forced to give up what's most meaningful, you pick the next student and what they have to give up.
It gets dark quickly as the students start choosing objects in revenge for what they were forced to lose.
And then... when the heap is finished. Will it still be enough to convince Pierre Anthon that he's wrong?
I love the language in this book.
"Nothing matters," he announced. "I've known that for a long time. So nothing's worth doing. I just realized that." Calm and collected, he bent down and put everything he had just taken out back into his bag. he nodded good-bye with a disinterested look and left the classroom without closing the door behind him.
The door smiled. It was the first time I'd seen it do that. Pierre Anthon left the door ajar like a grinning abyss that would swallow me up into the outside with im if only I let myself go. Smiling at whom? At me, at us. I looked around the class. The uncomfortable silence told me that others had felt it too.
We were supposed to amount to something.
Something was the same as someone, and even if nobody ever said so out loud, it was hardly left unspoken, either. It was just in the air, or in the time, or in the fence surrounding the school, or in our pillows, or in the soft toys that after having served us so loyally had now been unjustly discarded and left to gather dust in attics or basements. I hadn't known. Pierre Anthon's smiling door told me. I still didn't know with my mind, but all the same I knew.
All of a sudden I was scared. Scared of Pierre Anthon.
Scared, more scared, most scared. (page 5-6)
Agnes is our narrarator, but she's a bit anonymous-- she functions more as an every student. I do, however, love her habit of repeating important words three times at different levels of extreme (hard, harder, hardest).
I love the language. I love when a translated work gives us a flavor of the language it was written in not by sprinkling the English with the original language, but by giving us a different turn of phrase, a different lyricism, a different rhythm-- when it makes us look at our own native tongue differently.
It's almost sparse in places, but that helps with the tension and the loss and the uncertainty.
I also love how damn sure these kids were that Pierre Anthon was wrong, and how much they had to prove it to him. Because they knew he might be right, but they fight his nihilism with everything they have because they can't live in a world where nothing matters.
I like such optimism in such a dark and morbid tale and it's that optimism that drives them to do such things. It's a bit perverse now that I write it out like that.
I also like how well we get to know the students solely by what they were asked to give up and how they react.
This was both a Batchelder and Printz honor title, which I think it deserves. It also won several awards in Europe.
It's one of those slight books that packs a lot of punch. I've been carrying it around for days to write about it, but every time I sat down, I wanted to think about it more. It's haunting that way.
Book Provided by... my local library
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