July 21, 2011
J.M. Ledgard: Giraffe
I remember seeing this book in the shops (remember those?) when it was published in 2006. Its handsome cover drew me, as did the stark title, but a lukewarm review or two dissuaded me. Only when I heard someone tweeting enthusiasm for it ahead of publication of the author’s new novel Submergence, did I get around to trying it.
Giraffe is one of those books which comes along rarely and, although written in English, feels like a novel translated from another language. You may well ask what I mean by such a nonsensical formulation. It is something to do with the other-ness of the subject, structure and setting. It seems to shed the bonds of typical English literary fiction right from the start with an opening chapter narrated by – what else? – a Reticulated giraffe named Sněhurka. If you thought the opening chapter of Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk was pushing the boat out – a birth, described from the precociously articulate viewpoint of the newborn – then here is a further development. “I hang halfway out. I swing. I fall. I am found, I am found at this moment…” For those impatient of such fancies – but what else is literature? – Sněhurka’s narrative lasts only a few pages, long enough for her to see from the African plain “a band of Czechoslovakians resolve out of the thorn trees.” She and her herd are captured. “‘There is socialism in our method,’ I hear them say. ‘Capitalists capture one or two giraffes, while we take an entire herd; because our intention is political, to issue forth a new subspecies.’”
To explore this political intention, the ‘Communist moment’ – we are in 1970s eastern Europe – we turn to human narrators. First is Emil, a haemodynamicist, that is, someone who deals in blood flow. “I am a student of hidden flow,” he says, with allegory aforethought. He tells the shipping director, who is transporting the giraffes to Czechoslovakia, that he wants to study giraffe blood flow as a model for “an anti-gravity space suit, such as we would like to design, which does not allow blood to settle in the lower extremities of the body.” In reality, Emil’s interests are purely investigative, the beauty of knowledge for its own sake, and he has little sympathy with the ruling regime. “Communism is the religion of a flightless bird, a penguin, which has no imagination of flight.” Similarly, the book treats its subject both allegorically and literally. Giraffe is a sort of Moby-Dick of the species camelopardalis. Like that book, it’s fascinating, surprising, and structured more carefully than is immediately apparent.
Also like Moby-Dick, Giraffe is at times dull. Ledgard’s strengths are in dialogue and vivid description. The story moves slowly for much of its length, as Sněhurka and the rest of the herd are transported to Europe. Emil meets characters with fascinating stories, but there are also longueurs, and the characters’ quirks can seem a little too freighted with meaning. “I am drawn to the edge of things, to margins and borders,” Emil himself reminds us (he also has a repeatedly described fascination with heights). Or a ship’s captain: “Since my passage is across the surface, I am not much interested in the interior of things.” Then again, this direct indirectness has a charm of its own; the otherness or foreignness I described above. The middle of the book is weaker than the start and end (though there aren’t many books over 150 pages about which that couldn’t be said). Later, other narrators come, and Ledgard’s storytelling ability kicks in with tremendous force toward the close, where readers who love careful balance between the beginning and the end of a book will be rewarded. The ending is a virtuosic fifty-page scene in multiple voices, which is likely to stay with me for as long as I remember books at all.
This is a book about the idea that human will can be exerted over nature’s rules. “The new giraffes will become used to the [Czechoslovakian] winters. They’ll learn to move on ice,” says the director of the zoo. The vet differs: “They’ll be like girls in high heels coming home from a country dance.” The extreme example Ledgard has chosen gives the idea both sinister and comic elements. The book is also about exerting will over other humans (the giraffes are not just giraffes). Czechoslovakia is “a country where officials say openly they can do whatever they like with it, if they keep the beer flowing.” It explores the relations between humans and animals. A zookeeper tells one of the narrators, “In an anthropocentric world … the point of a giraffe is to tower over us. The giraffe is the tall-man, just as the hippo is the fat-man. If a giraffe appears in a children’s story at all, it is only on account of its height.” It is also, most surprisingly, a true story. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “All this really happened, more or less,” when (back to Emil) “Communists took Czechoslovakia by the neck and wrung it.”