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the complete review - fiction
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A- : creative, effective
See our review for fuller assessment.
Most find a variety of flaws but still find it worthwhile
From the Reviews:
- "(H)is poetic, multilayered prose style can be a distraction as it strives for the enigmatic cool of Kundera. Yet, in the strangeness of the giraffes' short-lived "migration" to Czechoslovakia, Ledgard has found an effective symbol for what he calls "the brief communist moment"." - Elena Seymenliyska, Daily Telegraph
- "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." - James Flint, The Guardian
- "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." - Nicholas Royle, The Independent
- "(A) novel that shrewdly places the bewitching animals against the lifeless backdrop of 1970s Czechoslovakia. The reader, too, is likely to be captivated. (...) Ledgard displays admirable dedication in fictionalising this shameful episode. Giraffe is a work of obvious passion and great skill." - Alex Gibbons, New Statesman
- "Giraffe is as laden down with agitprop as anything by Brecht. Pretty much everyone who talks in it says the same thing -- that communism is even less than itís cracked up to be. Worse, they say it in the same slow, numinous, image-heavy voice. Read aloud at random from the book and you will have no idea whoís talking. This would be a fault in any novel, but in a novel whose specific intent is to make clear the Identikit restrictions of a political system, it spells double trouble. The good news is that, as the novel builds towards its bloody climax, Mr. Ledgardís pulse quickens, and his prose grows more supple and muscular.(...) Like the communists he despises, Mr. Ledgard should leave the comforts of his ideas and beliefs behind and get to grips with the resistant world." - Christopher Bray, The New York Observer
- "(F)lawed but striking (.....) (A)n allegory of the utopian ambitions of communism and their violent miscarriage, as well as a meditation on the unbridgeable gulf between human and animal nature. The abstractness of these ambitious themes does take a toll on Giraffe. By structuring the novel as a series of monologues by a rotating cast of narrators, Mr. Ledgard minimizes the opportunity for his characters to interact. As a result, dialogue and characterization are undernourished, and the book reads more like a series of reveries than a consecutive story." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
- "If youíre going to read only one novel this year that has an opening chapter narrated by a newly born giraffe, why shouldnít it be this one ? (...) The book is often overwritten and sometimes pretentious, but Ledgard is an interesting and serious writer, and his book remains in the mind, even if you donít entirely want it to. I was continually reminded of Harold Bloomís remark about all great books being strange: Ledgard has certainly got half the equation right. I can safely say Iíve never read anything quite like Giraffe, and on balance, and itís a fine balance, I think I mean that as a compliment." - Geoff Nicholson, The new York Times Book Review
- "Ledgard combines fine research with lyrical style; his description of a giraffe's astonishingly complex circulatory system is particularly memorable. The use of recurring images -- mermaids, a rusalka (a Slavic water nymph) -- conjures a world of fantasy and menace, balanced between dream and nightmare." - The New Yorker
- "His sad, dreamy, multifarious novel serves, however, to remind us how dull, how enslaving, how surreal, how opaque and of course how careless of life were the long years of Russian domination in countries such as Czechoslovakia, a.k.a. the C.S.S.R. Ledgard's mournful yet lovely book evokes that not-so-distant era through a stream of overlapping themes, images, anecdotes, erudition and ironic humor, organized round an unlikely yet actual zoological event (.....) His is a bravura debut, a rich composition with suggestions of steelier Scottish organizational rigor below its mazy surface." - Elsbeth Lindner, San Francisco Chronicle
- "(T)he story of the giraffes, and the two narrators' complicity in the slaughter, is compellingly and disturbingly told. (...) His desire to fictionalize historical events while asserting their factual basis tends to compromise Giraffe's metaphysical aims, drawing it inescapably back to the real. There is no denying the chilling success of his description of the slaughter, but the publisher's pre-emptive broadcasting of the climax on the dust jacket disserves a book which dramatically situates itself in a growing body of literature interrogating humanity's place in an animal world." - Patrick Flanery, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Giraffe is based on an actual events, culminating in something awful.
This end -- the massacre of the largest herd of giraffes in captivity, almost fifty in all, in a Czechoslovakian zoo in 1975 -- isn't hidden from the reader, at least not by the publishers, who use it as a sort of hook to catch the potential reader's interest (and, in fact, it could possibly be simply too devastating if kept as some sort of surprise to hit the reader with when s/he stumbles upon it in the book).
The baffling and seemingly outrageous act does seem to beg the question of what led to it, but Ledgard's book delves far more deeply than merely determining and presenting the (relatively simple) reason for the massacre.
He answers larger questions, of what kind of society acts in this way and why, and in doing so impressively presents a portrait of the Soviet-dominated ČSSR of the 1970s, and communist ideology in practise more generally
Various characters narrate different sections of the book, beginning with Snĕhurka, one of the giraffes.
Animal-perspectives are hard to pull off, but Ledgard only briefly resorts to it and for the introductory scenes -- birth, capture -- it's perfectly adequate.
Most of the book is narrated from Emil Freymann's perspective.
He is a haemodynamicist, studying the "blood flow in vertical creatures, in men and giraffes" -- enough to make him as much of a giraffe-specialist as any the Czechoslovak authorities could find.
The Czechoslovaks have a big project underway in 1973, and they've captured over thirty giraffes which are being shipped to Europe; Emil is sent to West Germany to pick them up and accompany them on the final barge-journey to their new home.
The project is ambitious if also in some way delusional: rather than put a few giraffes on display in some zoo, the authorities want to acclimate an entire herd to this new world, to make them Czech, in essence: they dream of a new breed -- Camelopardlis bohemica, as Emil suggests.
Emil has never travelled abroad beyond Hungary; West Germany represents a different world.
The giraffes, meanwhile, have been taken from their home, and journeyed thousands of miles by ship to reach this new, strange land that is meant to be made theirs.
(Impressively, only a single animals dies along the way, an astonishingly low mortality rate compared to similar animal transports.)
So Giraffe positively drips in symbolism and metaphor.
A new society is being formed, regardless of the will of the individuals; ironically, they thrive: a mere two years later there are almost fifty giraffes, and possibly almost half of those put to death are pregnant at the time.
For the most part Ledgard handles this well enough: only with a few touches is he trying too hard (that Emil is named after Kästner's boy-detective is fine, but does he also have to be named Freymann ('free-man') ?).
Occasionally heavy-handed, in a prose that veers to the stilted (a useful alienating effect, but one that might annoy some), Ledgard does very much emphasise that this is a portrait of a society gone wrong.
Emil is dutiful, but only because he doesn't have the will to break free.
He feels small and subjugated, and he recognises what ails him:
Contemplation of my country is enough to bring on nausea.
Not sea-sickness, but land-sickness: I search the horizon for a sea, as a sailor searches for land.
I want the meadows to shift under a light swell and the eels to summon up a hurricane from the Sargasso Sea of their memory, that might swing the bells in the church towers.
Emil does not suffice for all of Ledgard's purposes, so another voice appears: that of Amina, a girl who works in a factory making Christmas decorations, without parents or any real friends.
Yes, she's named after the heroine of Bellinni's La Sonnambula -- and, yes, she does a lot of sleepwalking:
I am a sleepwalker by day, as well as by night.
I am not often awake to this ČSSR of 1973
But she diagnoses a variation of it as a national problem:
I am not so different.
This is a country of sleepwalkers by day, who drink by night only as a lesser form of sleepwalking.
This is a country where the officials say openly they can do whatever they like with it, if they keep the beer flowing.
We are hardly any of us evr awake as operatic Amina is awake
Like Emil, she makes do with her place in this society, understanding what is required and what is allowed:
The Communist moment does not demand that I love it, or be awake to it.
It asks only that I do not question it.
What can I question ?
I am below politics.
She is, however, drawn to the giraffes: they awaken her, she says, and she spends two or three afternoons a week among them.
She also manages to slip in the zoo when the massacre begins, one of several characters brought in or drawn to witness and partake in an event that officially doesn't happen.
There are no records, and everyone is sworn to silence, but from one day to the next (to May Day, as it turns out) the giraffes are gone.
The conclusion does present certain difficulties, as it's such a horrific event.
Ledgard does not shy away from it, describing it in considerable detail, repeating it even from various points of view (others joining Emil's and Amina's).
It's possibly as successful as such a scene can be, and yet it's a hard to take contrast with the rest of the novel
(Finally, the final brief scene, in which 'foreign correspondent' Steve stumbles upon the story a quarter of a century later (much as, presumably, Ledgard stumbled upon it) also seems out of place.)
Part of the great appeal of Giraffe is the risks Ledgard is willing to take in presenting the story.
Even the completely contrived (such as Amina's name), even a used-to-death fact such as Shakespeare (mis)placing Bohemia on the seashore, work in this novel.
The careful construction (the care is apparent, the construction not too obvious) and the willingness to experiment with style (successful far more often than not) make it a very impressive piece of writing.
As a depiction of the ČSSR of the 1970s -- and of totalitarianism in general -- Giraffe is a great success.
Ledgard manages to take this fairly simple episode and, using just a few characters (with little direct contact with the authorities), creates a suggestive picture of the much larger prevailing conditions.
It's also a very well-written book -- still with the feel of a writer trying to get his bearings, but at least one who is willing to try out a great deal (and succeeds far more often than not).
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Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction
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About the Author:
British author J.M.Ledgard was born in 1968.
He is a foreign correspondent for The Economist.
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© 2006-2009 the complete review
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