Georg Røed is a teenager who lives in Oslo, Norway, with his mother and stepfather. His own father died when he was three and a half years old, and Georg has only a vague memory about him. One day, when he is fifteen years old, his grandmother finds an old envelope in the storeroom. It appears to be a letter written by Jan Olav, Georg’s father, eleven years ago, addressed to his son! The letter appears to be not just an ordinary letter, it is a legacy. A legacy of life lessons. In that bundle of computer-printed papers, Jan Olav left very valuable life lessons taken from his own short life. Jan Olav wrote that letter weeks before his death, and now Georg is sitting in his bedroom to read it for a whole day. Little does he know that that letter, that day, would change his whole life!
So, just like Jostein Gaarder’s other books, this is also a story within story (or you can call it a letter within a book); a story about philosophy of life.
When he was twenty years old, Jan Olav was a Medicine college student. One day in a tram (it was around 1970s), he saw an attractive girl standing in the aisle while hugging a large paper bag full of oranges. Maybe that’s what we call ‘love at first sight’, because right at that moment Jan was attracted to that mysterious girl whom he later called ‘The Orange Girl’. In a little accident caused by his clumsiness, the Orange Girl left the tram before Jan Olav had even time to say anything more than “Sorry”.
After that incident, Jan Olav was kind of obsessed to the Orange Girl. He spent a lot of time searching for her; he even satisfied his hunger for facts about the girl’s identity by inventing dozen stories that might be applied to a girl who wears an orange anorak, carries a bag full of oranges. Jan Olav hung around at the fruit market, and even spied an orange stall there, hoping that the Orange Girl might stop by to buy supplies of oranges. So great was his obsession, that sometimes, the Orange Girl seemed to be for Jan Olav a fantastic tale. A tale which, if he did something wrong, the whole bubble of his hope to meet her again would be bursting at once.
Until now you might think—Georg thinks the same way too—that Jan Olav was just telling him how he ever met Georg’s mother, and the whole letter was just a romance story after all. But no… From the beginning—and scattered in the whole story to the end—Jan Olav sprinkled questions and reflections about life, about human’s existence, and those kinds of philosophical ideas. Even from the opening, Jan Olav has slipped his queer interest about Hubble Space Telescope. What is the connection between the mysterious Orange Girl and Hubble Space Telescope? And what does all of that have to do with life lessons?
As I have learned the best way to read Jostein Gaarder from experience—I have so far read Sophie’s World, Solitaire Mystery, Through A Glass, Darkly, and Maya—I have anticipated from the beginning that queer things would appear along the story; these sprinkles of philosophical thoughts Gaarder used to slip within the stories. So, I have prepared to scribble notes of my ideas on the book leaves’ margin whenever I feel Gaarder is telling me something. Here are the ideas (and sometimes questions) I gathered from beginning to end, let’s analyze whether they would unveil something about what this book is really telling us.
Existence – time – parallel – soul – reality vs existence – two realities – living imagination – unique creation – playful life vs meaningful life – life’s rules and consequences – why orange, why Sevilla? – life is tale – we are part of the universe – Hubble Space Telescope reads us like we read this book.
Do they all make any sense to you? Haha! Let me call it a puzzle of my thoughts. So, reading Gaarder is always like this; his books require high concentration but they are challenging too, it’s like putting pieces of a puzzle in the right place, then voila! And when you could reveal what he meant at the end, it would be like winning a prize! Because Gaarder always teaches us how life is valuable, how being a human is priceless. But if you couldn’t get the whole meaning, then….you probably need to reread it NOT as a fiction, but as a philosophy lesson enveloped by a fiction. Because that is how Gaarder writes his books.
So, what is this book about? Jan Olav left an essential question for Georg at the end of his letter, asking Georg to take time to reflect and answer it, because the answer would influence his future life as an adult. This is also an essential question for us as an adult that Gaarder wants us to reflect after we finish the book. If you intend to read this book and find out yourself the question and meaning, you might want to skip the following paragraph. *spoiler alert*
The big question is (borrowing the Bard’s line): “To live or not to live.” Gaarder supposes our lives in the universe as a lot of different tales in a book. Combining my above puzzle-of-my-thoughts with my reflection, I think Gaarder wants us to reflect our ‘existence’ in the universe. Let us just take a leave from our daily routines and watch or follow our own existences like we read a tale, instead of being the characters in the tale. The characters only exist in their own world, while for us, the characters are just small trivial in our much wider scope of life. Gaarder picks Hubble Space Telescope, the Eye of Universe, as an example, because it can capture images from the whole universe, not only our earth, but also other galaxies million light years from the earth. We need to realize where we, human, stand before our Creator. We are like tiny sands in a long beach, yet we were each uniquely created by God. What Gaarder wants us to answer is: if life is as short as tale, if we were to live only in a short period of time, then…is it really worth to have it? If we can choose before we were born, what will we choose: to live or not to live? Or to put it simpler: is life worth to live? *spoiler ends*
I think Gaarder is really smart in crafting his story. Throughout the story he slips that big question, but on the other hand, he also shows us the answer. If we really read this deeply, we would be able to answer his question confidently right after reading; if we haven’t been reflecting enough about this most important aspect of life—to live or not to live…..
Five whole stars for The Orange Girl, another brilliant work from Jostein Gaarder!
*I read Mizan Indonesian translated edition (Gadis Jeruk)*
This book is counted for:
10th book for 2013 TBR Pile Challenge