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The story at the heart of “Giraffe” (Penguin Press, 298 pages, $24.95), the flawed but striking new novel by J.M. Ledgard, falls into the category of truths that are stranger than fiction. On April 30, 1975, the zoo in the Czechoslovakian town of Dvur Kralove was sealed off by the military and secret police. A sharpshooter and a team of butchers, dressed in biohazard suits, were brought in under cover of night, and given a gruesome order: The zoo’s entire herd of 49 giraffes — the largest in captivity — was to be killed. No written records were kept of this massacre, whose goal was to erase the giraffes from history, to make it seem they had never existed. Indeed, the giraffe massacre was so well concealed that there seems to be no mention of it on the Internet, except in connection with Mr. Ledgard’s novel. This might give rise to the suspicion that the whole thing is an audacious hoax, were it not for the author’s solemn assurances that “‘Giraffe’ is a true story.”
Mr. Ledgard, a foreign correspondent for the Economist, stumbled across the story while reporting in the Czech Republic. He had never written a novel before, but he must have recognized that no mere article could do justice to the strangeness and suggestiveness of the giraffe massacre. Merely to recite the facts is to reduce it to a news-of-the-weird oddity, a piece of macabre trivia. In Mr. Ledgard’s hands, however, it becomes much more: an 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. The reader proceeds through its pages as through a dream-play or ghost story: “I feel inconsequential, not just slight and aerated, but invisible,” as one character puts it.
What makes “Giraffe” intriguing, and intermittently justifies the extraordinary praise it received in Britain (including comparisons to Kundera and Sebald), is the way Mr. Ledgard manages to make this disembodied style feel thematically appropriate. While he is dealing with real events, and observes the natural and animal world with rare acuity, the Czechoslovakia he has created stands in the same relation to the real country as does the Bohemia of “The Winter’s Tale,” endowed by Shakespeare with a nonexistent sea coast. (As if to leave no doubt on this point, Mr. Ledgard alludes to the play early on.)
The CSSR, as Mr. Ledgard calls it, using the republic’s Soviet-era initials, has no choice but to feel like a dream country. For one thing, it has inherited a whole folk mythology of rusalkas and vodniks, water-spirits that lie dormant in the riverscapes Mr. Ledgard loves to evoke: “The vodnik looks after a stretch of a river or stream. He lives among eels in pools where trout circle. It is the vodnik who causes a river to burst its banks in spring … and to sink low in summer. It is he who pulls under the unsuspecting fisherman and the drunk ferryman, he is the one who catches and cradles the mortally stricken child who has broken through the ice.” Indeed, in Mr. Ledgard’s telling, the very geography of Czechoslovakia comes to feel uncanny: a land-locked country where no wind blows, whose language has “no words for spume or barnacle or jetsam.”
History, however, has imposed on the CSSR a more malign enchantment: communism, which Mr. Ledgard, as though to emphasize its transitoriness, always refers to as “the Communist moment.” Set in the period after the failed Prague Spring of 1968, “Giraffe” presents a Czechoslovakia “caught in a spell of normalization, darkened, like an insect colony under the shadow of a stone.” Under this spell, the Czechs go about their daily lives with whole regions of their consciousness blotted out, like somnambulists. “This is a country of sleepwalkers by day,” says Amina, one of the two most important narrators of “Giraffe,” who is herself a literal sleepwalker. She is even named after the sleepwalking heroine of Bellini’s opera “La Sonnambula.”
If the symbolism in this case feels driven home with a hammer, Mr. Ledgard is subtler and more ambiguous when it comes to the giraffes themselves. The novel’s first chapter is actually narrated by a giraffe, named Snehurka (“Snow White”) by the Czechoslovak scientists who capture her in Africa. The book’s first third is devoted to the voyage of Snehurka and her herd across the ocean and down the Elbe, an odyssey Mr. Ledgard presents as a series of surreal tableaux: “The giraffes look desperately across the harbor as they swing … searching for certain trees and animals, but finding no acacias and no hippos moving along the poisonous mud banks. Gulls hover above the crates and squawk, yellow-beaked, at the heads of the giraffes as they descend.”
The reader witnesses this phase of the journey through the eyes of the novel’s other major narrator, Emil Freymann, an expert on the circulation of blood in giraffes, who is deputized by the secret police to escort the animals to their new home. Through Emil, Mr. Ledgard is able to share with the reader his extensive researches into the anatomy and history of giraffes. We learn about the first giraffe in Medieval Europe (a gift to the King of Naples in the 13th century), how giraffes sleep (a few minutes a day, with their eyes open), how they use their long necks and small brains.
Only gradually does this scrim of information part to expose the deeper significance of the giraffes, the allegorical meanings Mr. Ledgard finds in them.The most explicit of those meanings appears when Emil meets the zookeeper Alois Hus, a devoted communist who plans to breed a new native subspecies of giraffe, Camelopardalis bohemica. This megalomaniacal ambition, which flies in the face of biology, geography, and common sense, is clearly meant to remind the reader of the communist dream of a “new man,” whose very nature would be remade by social engineering.
But what the state creates, Mr. Ledgard reminds us, the state can destroy at will. When a few of the giraffes develop foot-and-mouth disease, the authorities, fearing the spread of the virus to cows and horses, decide to abort the experiment in the most literal sense. The secret police call on the services of Jiri, a woodsman and sharpshooter whose narration takes over the last section of “Giraffe,” the description of the massacre itself. This Mr. Ledgard imagines with scrupulous accuracy, allowing the sheer horror of the scene to emerge from details: The flames used to drive the animals out of their cages, the butchers who break their long necks and fold the corpses into disposal trucks. It is a scene out of Hieronymus Bosch, and forms the most compelling set piece in a book whose narrative momentum is often tenuous.
If Emil offers a scientist’s perspective on the giraffe, and frames the novel’s political allegory, it is Amina who holds the key to Mr. Ledgard’s metaphysical intentions. Amina, an orphan who works in a factory making Christmas ornaments, is an irritatingly waifish creation, with a penchant for cloying poeticisms: “I am wet with rain and rain comes from above, where I would like to be.” But as she befriends the giraffe keeper and devotes herself to visiting the animals, she is the only character who seems to recognize their genuine foreignness, the estrangement from the human plane for which their height is a ready metaphor. “Giraffes are unreadable to me,” she declares; “They often appear to be looking straight through me, as if I am a ghost to them.” This mystery, first negated by the giraffes’ imprisonment and then by their enlistment in a political dream, is most horribly violated in the climactic massacre. Only when we are able to fully imagine that otherness, Mr. Ledgard suggests, will we be able to respect and preserve it. This serious insight, and the many surprises with which Mr. Ledgard surrounds it, make “Giraffe” a noteworthy and intriguing first novel.