December 27, 2010


A friend of mine just finished auditing a course in literature. As the authors studied were foreign and unknown to me, I asked her to recommend any she thought were especially entertaining. She responded by bringing a bag of the books from the reading list with her the next time we met for tea. They were like Christmas gifts, glittering in their slick jackets, a windfall I hadn’t expected. 

That evening, I sat down with the first novel and finished it two days later. The work was translated by Antheneum Books for Young Readers from the Danish and was written by Janne Teller. It was called “Nothing.

The story begins amusingly enough. A boy storms out of his class, declaring that nothing matters, absolutely nothing. The teacher is shocked, his classmates are shocked and they become even more so when he takes a solitary position up a plum tree that grows along the path to school. There he sits each day, hurling invectives and ripe fruit at the students who pass beneath him on their way to class. The situation becomes intolerable, not only because the children dislike being made targets, but also because something in the boy’s conviction shakes their faith that life has meaning. They decide to create a heap of treasurers inside an abandoned saw mill and when they’ve collected everything of value to them, they will drag the boy down from the tree and convince him things exist in the world that do matter. As the students vie to produce greater and greater treasures, the competition and animosity grows, leading, eventually, to violence.

When I closed the book for the last time, I realized I’d read another version of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies, but one which exposed an even greater evil than existed in his world. In “Lord of the Flies,” evil arises unpremeditated and out of a necessity to survive. Teller’s book provides no excuse. Everything that happens is premeditated; evil is the result of conscious decision and with no more compelling motive than the desire to prove someone wrong.  

I confess I was troubled by the premise and surprised to see it published as a story for young readers — a far cry from, “Goodnight Moon.

The book is intelligent — if grim reading — but without an adult to guide adolescents through its layers of cruelty, I wondered what impressionable minds would make of it. I’m not suggesting the book shouldn’t be read by the young people. But some literary works require a Virgil to guide the innocent through the inferno. This book is one of them. “Nothing isn’t about nothing. It’s about all forms of betrayal. It’s about the darkest pit of hell.