“Nothing matters” and “it’s all a waste of time”: so says thirteen-year-old Pierre Anthon, the main character of Nothing, the novel first published in 2000, written by award-winning Danish author Janne Teller. And since there is no meaning to life and “everything begins only to end”, the young boy leaves school and climbs a plum tree. Just like Cosimo in Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees, he decides to stay there and never come down. From his tree he shouts the meaningless of life, like an old prophet, and, more childishly, throws unripe plums at his classmates.
Set in the fictional small Danish town of Taering (a name coming from a Danish verb that means “to corrode”), Nothing is a story about “everything and nothing, a boy in a plum tree, and a 7th grade no longer sure that anything means anything”. It’s a desperate, brutal quest for the meaning of life.
A twisted heap of meaning
“We didn’t want to live in the world Pierre Anthon was telling us about. We were going to amount to something, be someone”. As Agnes, the narrator, explains, Pierre’s classmates don’t want to hear his nihilistic view of the world: instead, they want him to come down from the tree. They want things to go back to normal as they are not ready to see their world collapsing.
To prove Pierre Anthon wrong, students begin to build a heap of meaning in which each of them has to sacrifice something of sentimental value. They start with simple objects: someone’s favorite shoes, a new bike, a fishing rod and a soccer ball. But as their pile grows in an abandoned sawmill, it soon becomes obvious that they don’t have the strength to give up what is most and truly meaningful. Thus they start to choose for one another.
Their quest for a meaning of life turns into an increasingly disturbing, twisted and cruel game made of painful choices. A pet hamster, a prayer mat, the head of a dog, the coffin of a dead brother, a guitarist’s finger, one girl’s innocence: the more the horror escalates, the more the students become desperate to find meaning and prove Pierre Anthon wrong.
A controversial novel, both acclaimed and banned
Written with a simple, almost minimalist style, Nothing is Janne Teller’s first and so far only young adult novel. Controversial, profound and thought-provoking, it is often compared to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for its dark portrayal of human nature, especially in teenagers.
The book was first published in Denmark in 2000 and initially banned in many European schools and libraries. Yet Nothing is also the winner of the Best Children’s Book Prize from the Danish Cultural Ministry, Le Prix Libbylit 2008 for best novel for children in the French-speaking world, as well as the 2011 Michael L. Printz Honor Award. In 2016 composer David Bruce and librettist Glyn Maxwell, co-commissioned by Royal Opera House, London, and Glyndebourne, adapted the book into an opera.
Today Nothing is published in more than 25 countries/languages and considered a modern classic. Many critics believe that Janne Teller has revolutionized the young adult genre by creating a haunting existential fairy tale for both teens and adults.