Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Manifestation of Cowardice: You Deserve Nothing

The protagonist is an English teacher at the International School of Paris.
First things first: I loved this book. Yet, You Deserve Nothing by the wonderfully talented Alexander Maksik is not an easy book to like. Not because of the very obvious moral transgression that is at the core of this book: the protagonist Will Silver, a high school teacher, has an illicit relationship with an underage student. But because it beautifully illustrates one of our key moral failings—cowardice.

Silver is the object of worship by all his students. He is a very likeable and loved teacher at the ISF, the International School in Paris, for American expats. Despite his teaching abilities Silver has deep moral failings. His students, who true to form, expect him to be a hero both inside and out of the classroom, are deeply disappointed when he wimps out. Silver might coerce his students to take to the soap box and fight for what they believe in, but he himself doesn’t practice what he preaches. This fall from grace is beautifully realized by Maksik through one of the voices that narrates the story—that of Gilad, a boy in Silver’s class.

Till the end Will remains a tad obtuse but Maksik does reveal that he has deserted his wife back in the U.S. after the sudden trauma of his parents’ death. Here too then is an act of cowardice—made worse by his seeking refuge in the blind affair with an underage girl. This girl, Marie, also slowly realizes she is making love to a ghost—the kids soon understand that adults are not all that they are cracked up to be. They are not heroes, just mostly hypocrites.

What makes You Deserve Nothing so arresting and readable is that it drives home some sobering truths. There are no shining heroes; life is complex; there are shades of moral fallacies in most of us. Will’s moral failings, his cowardice, make him so believably real, so very adult.

You Deserve Nothing takes an age-old story and makes it new. In doing so, it superbly shows us that life does not cough up easy answers. As Will’s colleague rightly points out, “The world disappoints you.” The best one can do then is to muddle along on one’s own internal moral compass—hoping for rare moments of courage and integrity in our darkest hours. It will have to do.

The picture of the school is from the ISP website.

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