The final word of Janne Teller’s innovative book War: What If It Were Here? is one that resonates through all literature. Elsinore. It is where she wrote the ‘Afterword’, and where she lives. In Danish, the town of 50,000 inhabitants quietly goes about its business looking across the Øresund strait at Sweden; its anglicised equivalent sits proudly as the venue for the most famous question ever posed. Shakespeare appropriated the town’s Kronborg castle as the setting for Hamlet.
‘To be or not to be’ is pretty much the focus of Janne Teller’s work, with its focus on existential and ethical questions. Although she has written many books for adults, her most celebrated is Nothing, a young adult ‘crossover’ novel in which schoolboy Pierre Anthon unexpectedly leaves his classroom on the first day of a new school term to climb a tree and declare that everything is meaningless. Although he sets in motion the action of the novel, it is left to Pierre’s classmates to grapple with the question he poses. Not what’s the meaning, but is there a meaning to life?
Nothing is Kierkegaard meets Hans Christian Anderson in the twenty-first century. The novel follows the increasingly barbarous actions of Anthon’s twenty-one classmates in the service of creating a ‘heap of meaning’ – to prove that some things really do matter. The heap builds from innocuous items like the narrator’s pair of green wedge sandals and another girl’s blue hair to include a desecrated statue of Jesus, the severed head of a dog and the coffin of a dead child, among even more shocking ephemera chosen by the children with increasingly unhinged spite and cruelty. Eventually, the group’s dark misdeeds attract the attention of the world’s media.
And the author herself did not escape equivalent scrutiny. Initially banned in Denmark, Nothing has drawn comparisons with Lord of the Flies. But for me its use of young people as protagonists of a microcosmic study of an upturned world is far more chilling than the violence and oppression in William Golding’s classic. Written in stark, simple language, the teenagers’ actions create genuinely shocking moments where the reader is forced to peek into an abyss of a world that may not have meaning.
Before my onstage appointment with Janne, where she talks about the way in which Nothing largely wrote itself as she followed the dark logic of the trail she had set herself, I make a date with Juanita.
Housed at the Museo Santuario de Altura del Sur Andino, Juanita is another teenager who forces us to look directly into the abyss. Victim of an Incan pre-conquest human sacrifice, Juanita would not have been her real name. The girl, around thirteen years old at the time of her death, is one of the best preserved – and therefore most celebrated – examples of such practice that we have, and she caused a sensation within the scientific community following her discovery in the mid 1990s.
Archaeologist Johan Reinhard and mountaineer Miguel Zárate discovered Juanita’s corpse in a crater of the inactive Ampato volcano in 1995. She had been buried with offerings of plants and gold statuettes. Following analysis in Baltimore and an exhibition at the headquarters of the National Geographic magazine in Washington, Juanita was returned to the Catholic University of Santa Maria, Arequipa.
Coming face to face with the mummy, curled like a banana behind three layers of Plexiglass and a complicated set of machinations to ensure she stays as chilled as she was for centuries abandoned on a lonely mountainside, I feel nothing but pity for this poor girl forced to suffer the trauma of a ritual sacrifice involving an arduous march followed by a cocktail of hallucinogens and a brutal blow to the back of the skull. In death, as in life, she has been chosen, made an example of. The Incas selected only the most beautiful, ‘unblemished’ maidens for the ‘honour’ of sacrifice, but Juanita – skin and bone and extraordinarily prominent teeth – is not pretty now. The on-loop video installation at the museum claims that in a way her discovery in 1995 has allowed her to achieve the immortality her people wished for her. If she were my daughter or sister, I’d rather she’d have been left to rest in peace.
But after reading Nothing and talking to Janne, I realise that for the Inca, Juanita – whatever her real name was – and girls like her were nothing less than contributions to humanity’s own ‘heap of meaning’. The practice may have been wrongheaded and cruel, but far from the nihilism of Pierre Anthon’s treetop declarations, the native people in this part of the world were looking not for nothing, but for something.
‘To be or not to be’ is still the question. And both Janne and Juanita encourage me to answer in the affirmative.