The World According to Anna by Jostein Gaarder; Translated by Don Bartlett, book review

Gaarder's novel reads like a pamphlet on climate change for dummies

Max Liu
Thursday 26 November 2015 00:04
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The pleasures of dining al fresco in a mild autumn are tempered by the suspicion that this must be a bad sign for the environment. A character in Norwegian writer Jostein Gaarder's new novel encapsulates this sense when she says: "This September was the hottest on record… We're seeing the side-effects of global warming even earlier than we expected." I don't know if the mild weather is an effect of global warming or not so, in a way, I'm Gaarder's ideal reader, because The World According to Anna reads less like a novel than a pamphlet on climate change for dummies.

Gaarder, who's best known for Sophie's World (1991), has been an environmental campaigner for many years but, in his new novel, his activism has polluted his art. Fancifully billed by his publishers as "a fable for our time", the action begins when Anna, who's recently started dating Jonas, is about to turn 16. "Dreams come to me from another world," says Anna, so her parents send her to see a psychiatrist. Fortunately, Dr Benjamin shares Anna's concerns about climate change and says: "I ask myself whether we live in a culture that intentionally represses fundamental truths."

In her dreams, Anna travels through time to 2082, where she meets her great-granddaughter, who castigates her for the blasted world Anna's generation has created: "I want a million plants and animals to come back from extinction… I want the world that you had at my age. ... You owe me that." Such authorial hectoring is unattractive but Anna is shaken by the dream so she and Jonas spend the rest of the novel flitting between fantasy and reality, 2012 and 2082, inventing unusual ways to save the planet.

Gaarder's translator, Don Bartlett, has given English-language readers memorable versions of novels by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Per Petterson but here everything is flat and banal. "What was wrong with humanity?" Anna wonders; and can somebody's words sound simultaneously "as though they were being swallowed by a deep cellar or coughed up from a great cave"? Surely, it's one or the other or, more likely, neither. The novel's lack of drama denudes Gaarder's arguments about the environment, which goes to show that didactic fiction is always a lose-lose situation. Why didn't he simply write a polemic? A romance about idealistic teenagers, with magical elements and topical themes, has potential but Gaarder is too busy sermonising to create anything more than the bones of a story.

Orion Books £12.99. Order for £10.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

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