Everyone is born a nihilist

In principle no hope

This is the beginning of the new novel by Juli Zeh. And above all, he tells us one thing, and very quickly: that he wants a lot, this novel. Because "play instinct", as it is called, wants to be nothing less than a provocative remake of the social novel; an all-round panorama of the local mentality, which is lined with the zeitgeist of the now in bright colors and explains the good old intellectual history to pale wallpaper.

Its location is therefore also Bonn, the disused capital of a disused West Germany. The actual place, however, is - greetings from Erfurt - a school which - one soon suspects - only mockingly pays homage to its namesake, Ernst Bloch. And at this school, it is not hope as a principle, but an evil game that will chain three people together for almost a year. The focus of this game: the students Ada and Alev, and Smutek, their teacher.

In 2002, Ada entered Ernst-Bloch's tenth grade at the age of 14 - a change of school was necessary because she worked on a classmate with brass knuckles. She is considered difficult to learn, but also highly gifted; she is precocious and one of whom the others soon say: "She shits on everything". And last but not least, she is an excellent runner - which brings her to the attention of Smutek, her teacher of German and sports. But in Alev, who comes to her school in 2003, Ada finally finds a counterpart. Because Alev is a male sphinx: a charming and eloquent seducer with the "intelligence and toughness of a madman", as it is called in the novel. Above all, however, Alev is driven by a cold will to power. And it will be with this power that Ada, who falls in love with Alev, will make a pact.

But the victim who is supposed to make this pact is Smutek, who comes from the old world called Poland. He was wrongly arrested there and then deported to the West, where he valiantly maintains his belief in the good in people. Until he falls into the clutches of Ada and Alev. Because Ada will seduce Smutek into sex, while Alev secretly films to put the pictures on the school's website; extortion, which, however, is less about money and more about Smutek himself, as Alev explains:

What's the point of blackmail? Makes. New opportunities for everyone involved. Pleasure. Maybe money. But above all: satisfaction of the play instinct.

The play instinct, however, Ada explains to us, is the last thing left when values ​​no longer apply. And that: a loss of all values, a lack of good or bad, a moral inhibition threshold, all of this certainly applies to Ada and Alev. Because you watch them practically in disbelief as they perform the same ritual every Friday, and Smutek is summoned to the gym, where Alev gives him instructions for changing positions with his student.

Why Smutek will only defend himself against his tormentor Alev after more than a year is not really clear in the novel. What cannot be overlooked, however, is the symbolic irony inherent in so many motifs and strands of the complex and voluminous novel when Smutek - whose name means "sadness" in Polish - is studying Musil's "man without qualities" in German class. Because for the author Zeh this novel is like a kind of made visible foil: because it anticipated what is now also her topic: the examination of the ideas of nihilism and its effects on today's society.

The explanatory sentence is: These people, my people not only believe in nothing, they also no longer believe that you cannot believe in anything. They have reached a point where they no longer even have to set themselves apart from valid values ​​that still exist, but they were born at a point in time or became capable of thinking, because it is these pillars that one rejects that one rejects can, no longer existed.

For the "us" in the book, i.e. for my staff, this means that they see each other at a point where they are already beyond what (..) the nihilist says of himself.

Zeh is primarily concerned with illustrating this kind of turning point, which she ascertains based on her two youthful heroes - the great-grandchildren of the nihilists, according to Zeh - and in which sober pragmatism has taken the place of annoying morality, so that violence is only a casual occurrence is. Or, as Alev puts it:

My devil is not the presence of anything, not even something bad, but its total absence. It is a no-thing, the absence of an idea of ​​right or wrong, an empty space.

That is why Ada and Alev sometimes seem invented as they are. Because Zeh uses the exaggeration - not always to the advantage of the novel, by the way - to illustrate the finding of a generation break that has the character of the end of the times.

These young people had no desires, no convictions, let alone ideals, they did not aspire to a particular occupation, they wanted neither political influence nor a happy family, nor children, no pets and no home, and they longed no more for adventure and revolts the peace and quiet of the traditional. Less than any generation before them was it a generation. They were just there, the kin of an interim age.

At one point in the novel, Zeh names people like Ada and Alev as threshold people. And she goes a long way for their illustration. Because her author-narrated novel not only pursues various secondary scenes in an epically wide network - such as the suicide of the history teacher; or Ada's mother's war of divorce. Zeh does not spare himself with recurring references to the daily and socio-political key data of the time between 2002 and 2004, be it the EU enlargement or the Iraq war, be it Erfurt and the discussions about violence in the media - but all that to discredit it as empty, antiquated rituals.

The legal system itself is certainly also being discredited. Because the case is going to court because Smutek beat up Alev - after a long year in which it has become increasingly unclear who is actually playing a game with whom. And Zeh's judge therefore suggests that every judgment is a wrong judgment.

What the play instinct is about is the loss of morally fixed values ​​and the effects on a reality that still simulates the existence of these values ​​and actually rotates and moves in the same process, although the substantive basis is removed.

So that the right embodied by this judge withdraws from the case and is unable to judge the matter. That means a kind of surrender.

The end of the novel also seems like a surrender to one's own findings in a dehumanized world that is beyond good and evil, when Ada and Smutek disappear into the Eastern European sunset of a happy ending. But nothing, not even the metaphorics of this partly overloaded, partly analytically brilliant novel, which is sometimes bordering on kitschy pathos, should hide the provocative sharpness of its actual message: that, according to Zeh, there is a price for freedom: and that is an eternal remainder Violence.

Violence in schools is not violence in schools at all, but always violence among people and violent relationships among people are the most natural thing in the world. When you see children how they treat each other and how they learn what is allowed and what is not, it will always be about exercising and receiving psychological and physical violence, be it the brawl between four-year-olds in the meadow, be it trying to tear off the legs of a frog. Unfortunately, people experience themselves and others through violent relationships.