The veil of illusion

‘La maja desnuda’ by Francisco Goya, Prado Museum.

Maya by Jostein Gaarder.
Translated by James Anderson.
Phoenix House, Orion Books, 2000 (1999).

‘Everything is connected,’ José said.

‘Bellis perennis’

Where to begin when discussing a Jostein Gaarder novel? Do we start with the principal characters as suits our expectations for a work of fiction? Or do we begin the big philosophical concepts that Gaarder’s novels  almost always seem to focus on? Or is this a false choice given that humans are, as one character here suggests, ‘hyperindividualistic master-mammals’ blessed or cursed with a capacity for thinking big thoughts?

The apparent ambiguity comes when a group of visitors from different nations – Australia, Spain, England, Norway, Italy, the US – find themselves thrown together on a Fijian island anticipating the approaching new millennium. (Pedant that I am, that changeover point actually arrived at the end of 2000, not the beginning, but no matter.)

Near the 180° date-line, where you can have one foot planted in what will be yesterday and the other in what would be tomorrow, one of the narrators at a resort muses ‘Wasn’t it a bit strange that almost all the guests at the Maravu went round talking about the same thing?’ And this indeed is the central enigma that the reader also tries to fathom, continually foiled by a jester-suited figure.


Our focus centres on the two narrators. One is John Spooke, a widowed English author from Croydon; nested within his account is a lengthy epistle from Norwegian evolutionary biologist Frank Andersen to his wife Vera, a palaeo-anthropologist, from whom he’s estranged following the accident which killed their young daughter Sonja. And appended to these narratives is a so-called Manifesto consisting of obscure aphorisms associated with a childless Spanish couple, Ana and José. They all have personal stories to tell, stories which form the web of the novel.

But embedded within this weave are all kinds of literary lollipops – themes, ideas, coincidences, mysteries, clues, science, art, stories, life, death. Many represent the staples that Gaarder revisits in quite a few of the novels of his which I’ve read: cards, card games like Solitaire, the enigmatic Joker; Time and the possibility of the past impacting the future and vice versa, or indeed paralleling it; evolution, biodiversity, humanity’s effect on the planet; and of course relationships and love whether sexual, familial or platonic. As this novel’s dedication – to Gaarder’s wife Siri – hints, love between and for both spouse and offspring is an abiding motif.

To be sure, Maya is an uneven novel. There are longueurs in the first half set on the Fijian island of Taveuni as the reader is fed a plethora of details about biology, evolution and the universe; we witness a surreal conversation between the Norwegian and a ‘pentadactyl tetrapod’, a gecko he calls Gordon and who seems to be a kind of Jiminy Cricket conscience figure. And then there are many references to maya, the Brahman concept of illusion – or maybe it’s the Spanish maja, a lower class female with attitude, such as a flamenco dancer? What have Goya’s famous pictures, La maja vestida and La maja desnuda, to do with this conundrum? At one point the Englishman declares, ‘We are merely fleeting spirits in transition,’ and indicating one individual he adds, ‘And this spirit’s name is Maya!’

The Fool, from an early tarot card design, a precursor of the Joker

We may perhaps feel we are being taken for fools. But when the novel’s action moves to Spain, to Madrid, Salamanca and Seville, we start to see a way through the obfuscation Gaarder has deliberately created, as themes and motifs begin to coalesce and the reader’s fog of confusion begins to dissipate. It’s then that we finally understand some of the allusions in the 52 entries in the Manifesto, such as this, the final one:

It takes billions of years to create a human being. And it takes only a few seconds to die.

Best known as the author of Sophie’s World (1991), Gaarder followed it up with The Christmas Mystery (1992), which I found a little less convincing. For a pre-Millennium book Maya was quite positive in its outlook but by the time of The World according to Anna (2013), with its intimations of a worsened climate crisis and a calamitous loss of biodiversity, his tone was considerably darker. I somehow suspect that subsequent novels have remained pessimistic but don’t doubt that they’re all trying to say profound things about existence, perhaps along the lines of – as José says – “Everything is connected.”

Paul Gauguin ‘Tahitian Landscape’ (1897)

Other Gaarder titles reviewed here:
The Solitaire Mystery (1990) 
The Ringmaster’s Daughter (2003) 
The World According to Anna (2013)

Maya is my read for April in the #TBRyear10 challenge, but I’ve posted my review now on May Day as Maia was a Greek goddess, and the Roman named the month of May after her.

8 thoughts on “The veil of illusion

    1. Heh, I read these things so you don’t have to! My heart sank when I saw a mention of a Joker because Gaarder seems to have an obsession with cards and games; it’s taken me about a decade to finally pluck up courage to give it a go. I’ll not be re-reading though…

      Liked by 3 people

    1. No, though I share his concerned views on the despoliation of the natural world I’m less comfortable with his philosophical approach (which seems close to having his cake and eating it when souls and spirits are discussed); and also his plotting is too often confusing. Read someone else, Karen, do!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’m still trying to catch up with posts from earlier in the week! I read this book years ago when it was first published and I think most of it went over my head at the time as all I can remember about it (apart from the gecko) is that I found it very confusing and a disappointment after Sophie’s World and The Solitaire Mystery, which I enjoyed. You haven’t tempted me to try it again, but I did like The Orange Girl when I read it for this year’s Nordic FINDS.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had a look at the details of The Orange Girl on Goodreads and, for all that the novel uses stock Gaarder themes – stories, riddles, familial relationships – it definitely sounds a less opaque narrative than this!

      I seem to have somehow missed your own review so I’ll look at that presently – you’ve certainly highlighted the fact that one shouldn’t dismiss Gaarder on the basis of the occasional disappointment; and I see a Norwegian film was made of The Orange Girl so that’s another plus in its favour. 🙂


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