The Beauty in the Beast:
Giraffe by J. M. Ledgard
J. M. Ledgard’s debut novel opens with the voice of a giraffe narrating its descent from its mother’s womb. “I hit the ground headfirst, with a thud,” the white-bellied young giraffe born in the plains of Africa announces in the startling opening pages of Giraffe.
Although the giraffe—called Snĕhurka (“Snow White” in Czech) for the magnificent spotted white underbelly that leaves an impression on all who see her—remains at heart of the novel long after this first sensory scene, for much of the remainder of the book it is not this giraffe but a series of human narrators whose interior commentaries tell of what it is for a man or beast to be subject to the “Communist moment” of 1973 Czechoslovakia.
The first of these is a young hemodynamicist—a specialist in the blood flow of upright mammals—named Emil Freymann. Emil’s first-person narration dominates the entirety of Giraffe; ever true to his professional outlook, his perspective provides the precise thematic veins through which the story’s action smoothly pulses. When Emil takes over the narration, Snĕhurka has just completed describing her hunt and capture by Czech zoologists and the frightful sea passage around the Cape of Good Hope and up into Europe with 32 other giraffes. When the herd arrives in West Germany after weathering storms and sickness, they are met by Emil, who has been summoned by state authorities to supervise the last leg of the terrified creatures’ transportation to Czechoslovakia, where they will be housed at the Schoenbrunn Zoo.
Ledgard bestows his primary narrator (who is named for Emil Tishcbein, a forgotten hero of Czechoslovakian folklore who chases a thief through Berlin with a band of child detectives) with not only a scientist’s rigor of thought, but also an artist’s sensibility. Observant Emil has the ability to see poetry—or, more frequently under the Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime, poetry’s collapse—in his daily world. What’s more, he has the habit of preserving vivid, exquisitely described moments in his mind’s eye with the exactness of a camera. In the sections where Ledgard narrates through Emil’s voice, Giraffe’s prose is deft and luminous.
For example, on the return journey, when Emil sits near Snĕhurka: “I feel Snehurka’s legs behind me, through which veins run like vines, and I perform equations to represent the journey of blood through those veins to the ventricles of her heart, powerful as an elephant’s heart, on into thick-walled arteries, up the neck against the hydrostatic pull of gravity to her head, pushed impossibly high on an f-shaped stick. She cannot wish her heart to stop beating, any more than I can. So much of this life is without choice. I am grateful for that.”
As Emil accompanies the giraffes on the last leg of their journey out of the wilderness of Africa to the confinement of Communist Czechoslovakia, he finds himself developing a bond with his wards. Emil has no choice in this assignment, and he sees his powerlessness here (and throughout the novel) as analogous to that of the giraffes: Saddened by the animal’s discomfort with their prolonged travel, Emil philosophizes, “All suffering is connected. That is the feeling I have now on this barge of giraffes passing through Dresden: One suffering connects to another and binds us, as joy binds us.”
The parallel Emil draws between species is one central to the novel: The story opens just five years after the normalizace movement in which hundreds of thousands of protesting Czechoslovakians are fired from their jobs for opposing the state. Their posts are soon after repopulated by Communist supporters, “the best replaced with the worse, the patriots with lackeys, the questing with the credulous few.” Not surprisingly, as the novel progresses, these two kinds of oppression—the stagnation of man and of nature—grow increasingly intertwined; Ledgard, who worked as a foreign correspondent for The Economist for over a decade before publishing Giraffe, is just as interested in the suffering resulting from restrictions placed on citizens of the ČSSR as he is in the suffering of the creatures in captivity at the Schoenbrunn Zoo.
As the story’s complexity increases, the narration is passed to new characters. Midway through the novel, the voice of orphaned Amina, a Christmas-ornament factory worker, takes up the story. Like Emil, Amina has a namesake: She is named for the sleep-walking heroine of La Sonnambula, a girl who is spurned by her lover when he finds that she has sleepily wandered into the bed of another man. Ledgard’s Amina is similarly somnambulant, meandering from street to street, lover to lover and dream to dream day and night. Although accustomed to braving the hazards of her condition, Amina eventually discovers an anodyne in the “subsized workers’ entertainment” that is the zoo. “I do not sleepwalk in the zoo,” she reports with compelling matter-of-factness. Afternoons when she has completed transforming the day’s supply of translucent orbs into glistening metallic ornaments, Amina visits the zoo. At the zoo, she is alert. She watches baboons beat their cages in fury. She wonders if the rhinos are cognizant of the red banner (“our morals are fixed!”) displayed above their cage. And she tries to discern meaning behind the “unreadable” stares of the giraffes.
“Surely their blankness has a purpose,” Amina argues with the zookeeper.
The reader learns that Emil, too, finds the caged giraffes’ expression heavy in its vacancy. “Only occasionally, when the light strikes their enclosure in a certain way, as an equinoctial sun struck an Icelandic volcano in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and revealed to explorers an opening to the core of the planet, will the pupils of the giraffes dilate in some contrary fashion, betraying in a clinically observable way, even to a hemodynamicist, a memory of something more than the walls that contain them,” he muses.
No matter what the giraffes feel or remember, with each subsequent page of the novel, their time grows shorter. A worn-down Emil (“I can no longer stop the Communist moment,” he confesses; what’s more, “I find it hard to stop images with my eye in the way I used to, keeping them in my mind and turning them”) discovers that because the giraffes are claimed to be contaminated with a virus that could wipe out the entire population of livestock in the ČSSR, the animals have been ordered to be quarantined and put to death. Emil the aesthete becomes Emil the government white-coat who must mandate the killings, saying only, “The state can not afford the risk.”
In the final gruesome third of the novel, more voices take up the narration: In addition to Amina and Emil, there is Jiří, the hunter, Tadeášthe virologist, and Tomáš, a slaughterhouse man, who together describe the night of the animal’s slaughter in gory detail. All who are present the night of April 30, 1975 don cumbersome, sterilized suits and goggles. The sharpshooter drinks rum to steady his nerves. The zookeeper sends the animals out one by one where, in the glare of the floodlights, the marksman takes aim. When a dazed Amina stumbles upon the scene, she is commissioned to shine a flashlight in the animals’ eyes to stun them before Jiří fires. Emil collects vials of blood from the felled giraffes as the butchers make short work of the carcasses. By May Day, Schoenbrunn Zoo’s entire population of 49 giraffes—the largest herd ever to exist in captivity—has been systematically slaughtered. Through the shuddering personal narration of each of the characters present, a forgotten, obscure massacre—based on a true incident in Czech history—becomes an intimately macabre act of desperation.
“The zoo is nothing more than a contrivance,” says the giraffe-keeper at one point. But in Giraffe the bars of the animals’ cages serve as more than a flimsy symbol for the iron curtain. Instead, they serve as a vital reminder to the reader that the spaces between ethical action and thoughtless inhumanity, freedom and confinement, and finally, man and beast, are narrow indeed.