A Review of Maya by Jostein Gaarder

It is a pity that Jostein Gaarder isn’t a better writer. His concepts are so good, and his themes so compelling, that, in this hands of a better fiction writer, he could produce excellent work. As it is, his books are more interesting than enticing, and although the conceptual and philosophical premises on which they are based will interest the layman inclined to ponder the big issues of the universe. The actual stories tend to sit as a thin cover for what are essentially non-fictional philosophy books for the general public. Like Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, Gaarder’s latest novel, Maya raises some very good questions, and creates a perfect thematic background to his novel.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Maya
by Jostein Gaarder
Phoenix Paperbacks
October 2001
ISBN 0 75381 146 4
RRP A$19.95

It is a pity that Jostein Gaarder isn’t a better writer. His concepts are so good, and his themes so compelling, that, in this hands of a better fiction writer, he could produce excellent work. As it is, his books are more interesting than enticing, and although the conceptual and philosophical premises on which they are based will interest the layman inclined to ponder the big issues of the universe, the actual stories tend to sit as a thin cover for what are essentially non-fictional philosophy books for the general public. Like Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, Gaarder’s latest novel, Maya raises some very good questions, and creates a perfect thematic background to his novel.

The basic story is narrated by John Spooke, an English journalist and writer, although his voice only appears in the Prologue and Postscript. The rest of the novel takes the form of a letter ostensibly written by Frank, a Norwegian evolutionary biologist met by John on the small Fijian island of Taveuni, to his estranged wife Vera. Frank, John, a Spanish couple Jose and Ana, and some minor characters including an American/Australian Greenie named Laura, all get to know one another during a few week stay on this island known to be the first place to see in the impending Millennium. For reasons which aren’t that clear, John becomes very interested in Frank, Frank becomes very interested in Jose and Ana, and Jose and Ana continue to walk past Frank speaking outloud in Spanish in a kind of cryptic philosophical puzzle, mainly using the metaphor of a pack of cards combined with cosmology, with Frank desperately writing everything he can remember down. Along the way there is a group card game where the participants talk about the origins of the universe and a more formal kind of philosophic summit organised, just for fun, and on the spur of the moment, by John.

Underpinning the story is Frank’s intense fear of death, and all of the characters’ attempts to construct a kind of mystical explanation of the world, something which reaches its apex at the summit. The major concept includes the Gaia/Maya theory, which is raised by Laura at the “summit”. The theory proposes that we are all part of the great Earth, which is a single organism and a single ‘great soul’, and that our apparent individualism is a kind of illusion. Then there is the strange “manifesto” concept which is raised by Jose and Ana and which Frank becomes so obsessed with (or is that John who becomes obsessed?). This is a bit more convoluted, and a little hard to follow, but involves a self-aware joker (god?) amongst unaware elves (man?). Or perhaps the joker is actually the world soul, or earth, playing at being a human. At times I thought that those who longed for immortality, such as Frank, Vera, and John were part of the Joker spectrum, but again, it is all rather convoluted, and hard to follow with the many mixed metaphors. There are a few interesting aphorisms amongst the card metaphors, including: “The applause for the Big Bang was heard only fifteen million years after the explosion”.

The evolutionary theory, including the long “Gordon’s Gin” discussions between Frank and the articulate Gekko is probably the most interesting part of the book, and I did find myself wondering more about what would have resulted had a meteor (and resulting ice age) not wiped out the dinosaurs. I’ve always taken for granted that the primates were the natural predecessors to intellegent life, but that is probably because I don’t read enough sci fi. The concept that lizards, or any other creature could have evolved is probably not revolutionary, but it still makes for interesting conversation, especially when one is conversing with a lizard. It is also kind of fun to try and work out the riddle of the Joker, but however realistic the random musing may be, the end result is unsatisfying, and leaves the reader with much food for thought, and little nourishment. The sub-stories of Frank’s relationship with his wife Vera, and their attempts at reconciliation in the wake of their young daughter’s death are too short and too minor in the face of the philosophical meanderings to work. Similarly, Laura and her father, and John and his wife Sheila, all seem to be put there to bolster out the fiction.

There is also art. The relationship between Ana and Goya’s The Naked Maja painting, and the strange very old dwarf (is he the joker?) who keeps popping up to take photographs raises some interesting questions about time and space, and a non-linear explanation is hinted at. The characters themselves – Frank, John, Vera, Ana, Jose and Laura all seem thin and improbable – more mouthpieces for a single set of musing than living folk. The Gekko, well, he is more believable than Frank, and certainly more believable than John. The story is contrived, and the structure awkward. the development of the philosophy is obviously the focus of the book, but the use of the letter, e-mail, and the introduction of John all seem odd, as if they were afterthoughts, even though the whole book is constructed around them.

Gaarder was a teacher of philosophy for many years before becoming a full time writer, and he is a good teacher. He gets his readers thinking about his themes, and I certainly did ponder some of the issues he raised, even if the manifesto and joker concepts were messy, full of strange metaphors and not fully developed. Generally Gaarder’s books tend not to be reviewed critically, but I keep reading him, hoping that maybe he will take a few classes or something, and his fictional technique will improve enough to do justice to his superb concepts. If, like me, you are a ponderer, and tend to wonder about a range of physics related concepts but have never been able to handle the extensive maths involved with doing serious physical studies (in other words, you are a layman who is rather interested in the big, romantic scientific concepts) and have a slight left wing, naturist bend, you will actually enjoy delving into the big questions and concepts that Maya raises. You will just have to ignore the silly constructs (and Gaarder’s obsession with cards) he creates to support these ideas, the unrealistic characters, and the sloppily constructed plot, and just skip to the philosophy. Or better yet, just read Stephen Hawkings, Bertrand Russell, Robyn Williams or David Suzuki. All of them are terrific philosophers who write popular science books for the interested layman, leaving fiction to real fiction writers.

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