Thursday, December 7, 2006

Through a Glass Darkly by Jostein Gaarder

Through a Glass Darkly by Jostein Gaarder

A Review

"Who are you?"
"I still don't know who you are?"
"But we know nearly everything about you. It's just like a looking glass."
"Like a looking glass?"
"You see only yourselves. You can't see what's on the other side."

It is nearly Christmas. Upstairs, a young girl, Cecilia lies ill in bed, enfeebled and tired, and although she will see this Christmas, it will be her last; for she is dying, and both she and her family must come to terms with this. Then Ariel steps through her window. Only she can see him, and he is an angel. He is not like a conventional angel; what he most likes to do is chat about life and death, and the cosmos.

This is a slight book, only 161 pages long, beautifully written by Jostein Gaarder, and wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan. It explores deep meanings of life and death in a poetic form, and examines what it is to be human, and how humans are "an animal with the soul of an angel".

The book has many delights, and I must be content with picking out just a few.

Time and again Gaarder takes old stories as stories, not as literal truth, but revitalises and subverts them by putting them in a different perspective. One example is a wonderful re-write of creation mythology in terms of childhood, both humorous and deep. As Ariel relates it:

"When God created Adam and Eve, they were inquisitive little children who climbed trees and played around in the big garden he had just made. There was no point in owning a big garden if there were no children to play in it. So they were tempted by the serpent to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, and then they began to grow. That's how they were gradually driven out of their childhood paradise. The little rogues were so hungry for knowledge that, in the end, they ate themselves out of Paradise."

Then there is a delightful description of childhood linked to the idea of creation and rebirth, sand how "the world is created anew every time a child comes into the world":

"To be born is the same as to be given a whole world - with the sun by day, the moon by night, and the stars in the blue sky. With an ocean that washes in over the beaches, with forests so dense that they are ignorant of their own secrets, with strange creatures running across the landscape. For the world will never become old and grey. You humans become old and grey. As long as children are put into the world, the world is as new as on the seventh day when the Lord rested."

How can Cecilia see Ariel? He tells here that:

"There are several ways of seeing. Some people are blind. They have to use their inner eye. That's the same eye that you see with when you dream pleasant dreams… Nothing can damage the inner eye."
"Why not?"
"Because it isn't made of flesh and blood."
"What is it made of, then?"
"Of mind and thought."

Gaarder uses the permanence of angels and their existence as a contrast to the transience of the natural world. Angels are unseen, but so solid, that the material world is cloudlike to them, they can just pass through it; it is the material world that is the shadow land:

"Even a mountain is slowly ground down by the forces of nature and turns to earth and sand in the end… You are ghosts to us, Cecilia, not the other way round. You come and go. You are the ones who don't last. You suddenly appear, and each time a new-born child is laid on its mother's stomach, it's just as wonderful. But just as suddenly you've gone. It's as if God is bowing bubbles with you."

As the conversations continue, Cecilia comes to see that the limitations of human knowledge is what makes us human, and that it is only in death that we pass "though the glass":

"We see everything in a glass, darkly. Sometimes we can peer through the glass and catch a glimpse of what is on the other side. If we were to polish the glass clean, we'd see much more. But then we would no longer see ourselves."

Finally, and daringly, Gaarder takes Cecilia, and us, through the mirror to the other side, to beyond the experience of death.

This book is not a treatise on angels, nor is it a book of theology. Rather, it uses ideas about angels and God, and Odin (and his ravens!) to explore the transience of life, and how life can be seen to have an inner meaning, yet this has to be perceived not through external senses, but though our inner eye. It is not an easy book to pin down, and indeed it is not intended to be; to read it is to experience different modes of perception, different ways of seeing, and Gaarder has succeeded creating a book that is as more to be experienced by the imagination as grasped by the intellect.