I will make this introduction quite short. Forgive me if the following words seem poorly composed. I am in between classes at the moment and I have long day today.
When I picked this book, I was on a "Eastern Europe/Russian" whim. I had picked up a short story collection of Russian master Nikolai Gogol and after some time of perusing through books, found Giraffe. What interested me was that it took place in Czechoslovakia during the Soviet Republic.
Giraffe also coincided with a trip I made at the end of August/beginning of September. I went to Romania for a wedding. My insistent curiosity on post-communist Europe kept my eyes open during our travels in Romania (we did plenty of driving). The trip helped in visualizing Checkolosvakia as I read the novel.
Giraffe. What was it like to read about giraffes? Was it strange as the focus of a novel to the point that it was a character in it? Of course, Giraffe is not so much about real giraffes, but more of the significance of an event, at least, I think. What about the characters philosophizing (probably not a real word) about giraffes? I never imagined that the concept of a giraffe would bring about a kind of insight on life in general, especially in a Communist era.
The novel had way more characters than I expected. I thought it would just be two, Emil and Snehurka, and then we met Amina and so on. What did you think about the characters or about the number of characters in total?
Last point for now, what about the writing style? Was it effective, succesful, annoying? The langugage?
Many thanks to sharp-eyed commenter Horatio, who disagreed with my choice of reviews for Giraffe. Each acknowledged the depth of the story but discredited the stylization of Ledgard's prose. However, Horatio believes they were an "unfair reflection" of a book that is "brave, fiercely imaginative, and stunningly beautiful." As a result, he has pointed us to a pair of more favorable reviews which concentrate on the powerful emotions drawn out by the massacre of the herd.
Watchtowers of the grasslands, the far-seeing creatures that other animals gather around to catch any sign of unease, giraffes would seem emblematically to be awake. That may have been their downfall. In the novel, when the secret police necklace a small-town zoo, telling everyone involved that “this night has never happened,” the giraffes are evidently being exterminated because they carry a contagion seen as a threat to national security. The contagion of freedom, perhaps? Expert at nailing doublespeak—the giraffes drug in from Africa are said to be migrating and, in a send-up of Socialist engineering, will constitute a new subspecies—Ledgard finally turns tables on the regime, using its own language to reveal the horrific consequences of extreme politics in any form. Yet he does not judge his characters, and his giraffes remain captured but uncapturable in their lofty dignity, “the opposite end of anthropomorphism from Mickey Mouse,” as he surmises correctly. Ultimately, Ledgard leaves us pondering but imbued with a powerful desire to remain engaged—like any good novelist, serving as a watchtower of our culture.
We live in the copywriters' moment. A jacket blurb these days tends to reveal two-thirds of any plot. In Giraffe, the entire narrative is encapsulated on the inside flap. That Ledgard still manages a gradual build-up of tension is evidence of his storyteller's skill. He does it by installing a number of different narrators and having them pass the storytelling baton, starting with Snehurka, the giraffes' protagonist, and moving on to Emil and others including Jiri, a sharpshooter.
The inevitable bloody showdown, when all the narrators come together and retell the mayhem, is a tour de force, a fitting climax to a superb novel that is filled with compassion, yet never sentimental. I'm going to stick my neck out and call it a masterpiece.
If you’re going to read only one novel this year that has an opening chapter narrated by a newly born giraffe, why shouldn’t it be this one? Finding a convincing “voice” for such a creature is obviously going to test any novelist, and this giraffe, named Snehurka, appears to have attended a rather perfervid creative writing class: “The first thing I see is my own form, my hooves impossibly far away, slicked with fluid, and my mazed hide, bloodied, flickering in the haze, burning, as though I am not passing from my mother to the ground, but from the constellation Camelopardalis into the Earth’s atmosphere.”
If this is the kind of thing you like, you’re going to like this novel a lot. For my money it’s an opening that threatens to cripple the work completely, and if Ledgard gets away with it, it’s because we’re prepared to be indulgent toward what is by any standard an ambitious and remarkable first novel. This is not to say Ledgard needed to have been quite so indulgent of himself.
Jonathan Ledgard: I was a Central and Eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist at the time. One day, around 2001, I came across a snippet in one of the Czech papers. It was just a line in an interview with someone who later defected, to the effect that he had filmed the birth of a giraffe for Czechoslovak state television, but that the footage had disappeared after secret police had shot dead all the giraffes in that zoo. Could this be true? I was captivated. I spent a couple of years researching the book, then got sent to Afghanistan to look for Osama bin Laden, which is where I started to write it.
The impossibility of the giraffes' survival in Czechoslovakia is evident to nearly all those involved in their capture and transport, yet each participant performs his part. Hus, the bureaucrat who oversees the transfer of the giraffes, is the only character who expresses enthusiasm about creating a "Camelopardais bohemica" to entertain the worker. This enthusiasm, however, is governed by self-interest rather than idealism. Hus is characterized as "a careerist" rather than an ideologue. Idealism has long since failed. The characters that populate Ledgard's novel are not delusional they are practical. They are fully aware that rebellion will lead only to the destruction of the little personal freedom they have retained. Jiri the sharpshooter who kills the giraffes says, "I am a Communist because I wish to remain in the forest" and later adds, "I hold to CSSR out of fear and am openly relieved at its banality." These citizens know that to retain their ounce of freedom, to be left alone to the woods and to the summer cottages where "the only regime is mushroom picking, moonshine, and card games," they must simply not participate in the public sphere.
Ledgard places his characters fully at the service of this essentially neoplatonist worldview. They exist mainly as mouthpieces for research and mood, and show little convincing interaction or development. That's fine by me: realism isn't the intention here. But a symbolist work - however beguiling the writing (and the prose here is certainly that) - must stand or fall on the depth of its concepts. And seductive though Ledgard's reworking of this ancient tradition undoubtedly is, it's still just posh mysticism, and the first step on a road that leads inevitably, alas, to Paulo Coelho. Where I should have felt moved I started to feel manipulated, which is a shame, because there's plenty to like in Ledgard's novel: not least the wondrous, and gentle, giraffes.
I kick now in the darkness and see a coming light, molten, veined through the membrane and fluids of the sac, which contains me. I am squeezed toward the light. Let it be said: I enter this world without volition.
My hooves come first, then my nose, then the whole of my head. I hang halfway out. I swing. I fall. I am found, I am found at this moment, and my coming into being is a head-over-hooves tumble from weightlessness to weight and from the drowning, which has no memory, to what has breath and is yet to be.
It is white-hot out here, thin; it sears. The falling takes the longest time. The first thing I see is my own form, my hooves impossibly far away, slicked with fluid, and my mazed hide, bloodied, flickering in the haze, burning, as though I am not passing from my mother to the ground, but from the constellation Camelopardalis into the Earth's atmosphere.
So I went to the local Barnes & Noble to try and find a copy of Giraffe. Of course, they didn't have it. 95% of this location is either children's books or non-fiction, so I rarely ever leave with something in a bag.
The customer service desk made the usual pitch to order it, but I declined by explaining that I needed it right away for a book club. She then offered to call the next nearest B&N to find out if they had it. They did.
Books on hold get placed behind the front counter, so I didn't get an opportunity to inspect it before plunking down $14. When I arrived home, I discovered that someone (not me) had gotten the book wet (no liquid in the car). In fact, the back quarter of its pages were damp and still in the process of becoming ripply. Of all the kinds of injuries inflicted on books, nothing gets on my nerves more than water damage.
If the store weren't so far away, I'd have turned around and brought it back. I'm too lazy to drive all the way out there again and am eager to get it started, so I'm going to do my best at ignoring it.
I've been up to lots of things and haven't had much time for the computer. First, I started temping in order to bring in some extra money and have been going through a little bit of alarm clock shock after not having worked outside of my home for more than a year. I also went to Atlantic City for the weekend and happily came home with all expenses paid and some extra cash in my pocket. Finally, my house has been torn apart to make room for a washer & dryer given to me by a neighbor who moved away. Although I'm not happy about losing a cabinet in the kitchen, I am glad to no longer have to deal with crazies at the laundromat.
Today, though, I'm practically crippled because I spent yesterday digging up a large section of dead lawn. Between my aching back and the drizzly weather, I suspect a lot of time will be spent in front of the computer.
I am also weeks behind on responding to email. If you sent me one about joining BookBlog, please note that no signing up is necessary. Simply read the selection, visit the site during discussion week, and leave a comment. Easy.
Set This House in Order
I guess summer isn't a good time to get people together for a book discussion, but I am glad that I finally managed to read Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order. Many thanks to Daisy for letting us attempt a second shot at the book.
In 1975, on the eve of May Day, secret police dressed in chemical warfare suits sealed off a zoo in a small Czechoslovakian town and orchestrated the slaying of its entire population of forty-nine giraffes, the largest captive herd in the world. No reason for the action was ever given, and the townspeople understood that the were to ask no more about it. This massacre lies at the heart of J.M. Ledgard's haunting first novel, which recounts the story of the giraffes from their capture in Africa to their deaths far away. At once vivid and unearthly, Giraffe is a story about strangeness, about creatures that are alien and silent, about captivity, and about the inhabitants of a middling totalitarian state, sleepwalking through "the Communist moment" in the mid-1970s.
Despite my constant state of being behind on updating the site, I'm always open for volunteers for future discussions. Anyone interested in October, November, or December?