I have read several of Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder’s books in the past, many of them during my teenage years when I was just discovering the joy of the adult world of translated literature. Thus far, nothing has matched up to the strength of The Orange Girl for me, a wonderful and underrated festive tale about how the young protagonist’s late father kept crossing paths with a woman he named ‘The Orange Girl’ in his native Oslo. The overtly philosophical Sophie’s World, the book which has been sold over thirty million copies, and which Gaarder is undoubtedly most well-known for, didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much; whilst it raised some interesting questions, I felt that the plot let the whole down, and the characters which peopled the tome were not as realistic as they should have been for me to invest my feeling with them. The same can sadly be said for the newest novel of Gaarder’s to be translated into English by Don Bartlett, The World According to Anna.
The novel’s storyline piqued my interest; our protagonist is Anna, a young woman on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. She begins to have vivid dreams set in the future – in 2082, to be precise – which feature her granddaughter, Nova. These are not just dreams to Anna; rather, messages are transmitted to her through the medium. Her parents, who reside in a secluded part of Norway, decide to consult a doctor in Oslo, who refers Anna to a psychologist. He, of course, believes that there ‘may be some truth to what she is seeing’.
The World According to Anna begins on New Year’s Eve, but there is little that is festive about it, despite its promising opening sentence: ‘New Year’s Eve was a special time. Normal rules did not apply, and everyone mixed freely. On that evening they left one year behind and entered the next. They stepped over an invisible boundary between what had been and what would be’. In fact, the novel can be termed a dystopian work in some ways. The future which Anna sees is barren and isolated. She follows Nova through the landscape, along with ‘a band of survivors, after animals and plants have died out’. Dystopia is not my personal favourite in terms of a literary genre, but if it is done well – for instance, in works by Margaret Atwood – it can be incredibly effective. Not so here. It soon becomes up to Anna alone to save the world, which is where the whole thing turned sour as far as I was concerned.
Anna is not a good character. She is flat and underdeveloped, and the way in which she speaks often seems far above her fifteen years. She seems to have an unshakeable wisdom, which one would expect of a literary character far older than she. There is little here, in fact, to indicate that she is a teenager. When her psychologist, Dr Benjamin, asks her what she is afraid of, she gives this answer, which is at once important, but also curiously impersonal: ‘”… I’m afraid of climate change. I’m afraid that we’re risking our climate and environment without a second thought for future generations.”‘ Along with the conversations, much of the prose within The World According to Anna tends to read like a geography textbook at times, particularly with regard to the interactions between Anna and Dr Benjamin. Whilst what they say is interesting, it is relayed so matter-of-factly that it feels as though they are merely reading from a book. The relationship between them is incredibly strange too; perhaps the professionalism is lost in translation or something of the like, but it is unsettling almost to the point of becoming creepy.
The Norwegian winter is well set out, as are the changing conditions and altered migration patterns which Gaarder portrays. This is perhaps the strength of the novel; we as readers do see the landscape altering irrevocably. The third person perspective which has been used throughout is essentially a distancing device; Anna does not feel realistic enough to stand alone in this manner, and it perhaps would have been a more effective novel had Gaarder written from her perspective. The use of the narrative dream too is unsuccessful, largely because it is a device which is repeated over and over, and thus loses much of its meaning.
The World According to Anna undoubtedly makes one think about issues which our planet and civilisation face. However, the entirety is rather melodramatic. The novel sounded promising and important, but it soon becomes trite; its potential has not been reached. Gaarder has barely scratched the surface at times; it does not feel as though he ever goes deep enough to make his book believable. There is no lightness of touch in the prose or the translation, and it feels rather banausic in consequence. Whilst he has clearly attempted to tell this novel in a similar manner to Sophie’s World, The World According to Anna is neither as philosophical, nor as thoughtful.