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Giraffe by J. M. Ledgard

Giraffe (2006)

by J. M. Ledgard

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In May 1975 the largest herd of captive giraffes (about 49 giraffes, including 23 who were pregnant) were massacred in a small Czech town, apparently senselessly. The author, a British journalist, discovered the fact of the massacre, and chose to write this book, a novel, to explain the event, rather than a more appropriate in my view nonfiction account.

This book tells the story of the giraffes from their capture in Africa, their ocean voyage to Europe, their travels to the small Czech zoo via riverboat and train, their lives in the zoo through to their final gruesome deaths. Ledgard uses several different narrators, including a couple of sections narrated by one of the giraffes. Also narrating individual sections of the novel are Emil, a haemodynamicist (a biologist studying vertical blood flow), Amina, a factory worker who visits the zoo and loves giraffes, Tadeus, a virologist, and Jiri a sharpshooter.

What was jarring to me in this book was that the author used the horrifying story of the giraffe massacre to present a morality tale of the evils of communism. I was constantly removed from the story of the giraffes on the many occasions when Ledgard used one or another of his characters to comment on the failures or evils of communism. I found this particularly bothersome since the author is not Czech, or otherwise a victim of a communist regime, so it made the book feel even more like a polemic.

Of course the entire book did not sound like a polemic. For the most part it is written rather dreamily in poetic language. (In fact one of the main narrators, Amina, is a sleepwalker, clearly intended as a metaphor for the plight of most people under communism). And there is no question that the slaughter of the giraffes is described graphically and in gruesome detail. Faint-hearted animal lovers should avoid this section of the book at all costs.

I'm glad I read the book, and I think the story of the giraffes is an important one. I just wish the book had been presented as non-fiction, or at the least that the author had not attempted to use the book as an anti-Communist propaganda tool. (POSSIBLE SPOILER--For the record, it's clear that the giraffes would have been killed regardless of the political regime under which they resided--they were suffering foot and mouth disease.)

Cautiously recommended.

2 1/2 stars ( )
1 vote arubabookwoman | Nov 23, 2015 |
Hard to say much of anything about this novel. Perhaps I should mention the great amount of blood, the violence done to innocent animals, the lives spent as a pathetic worker in a communist country. Orders given and initiated. The only comparison to Sebald I might make is the denial present in the people responsible for carrying out their orders and those subjected to these harsh realities. Part of the European condition that Sebald so adroitly and mechanically insists upon on nearly every page. But this book in no way measures up to Sebaldian prose. I am not sure why it was even written. Gratuitous massacres do not impress on me anything but disgust for those who must. And the endgame for me results in a further reckoning that the fiction behind it all is best served as only a skilled Cormac can. ( )
  MSarki | Jan 24, 2015 |
A powerful story....or allegory.....or work of historical fiction....how about all three? Parallels are drawn between life under Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the lives of giraffes stolen from their natural habitat, trucked to zoo captivity, and then gunned down. Which is historical and which is fiction? Tough to say......read this but be prepared to agonize, empathize and hold your breath. Moving, horrifying, and very well written. ( )
  hemlokgang | Aug 24, 2013 |
Another book that left me with mixed feelings. This is a multi-point-of-view fictional narrative based on a real series of events that happened in Communist Czechoslovakia.

One of the problems I have in assessing this story is that it didn't read like a novel. It has some remarkable strengths. I loved the two main viewpoint characters: Emil, a charming scientist from a privileged background who is secretly anti-Communist; and Amina, a somnambulist factory worker who becomes very attached to the captive giraffes. I found the setting fascinating -- I've never read anything set in Czechoslovakia before, let alone Communist Czechoslovakia.

I thought the prose was very fine. It employed a certain amount of repetition, which I rapidly became fond of. There are certain phrases and images that appear over and over: "the Communist moment", people sleepwalking through Communism, Czechoslovakia's lack of wind, rivers as veins, humans and giraffes being "vertical creatures". These repetitions gave the story a dream-like quality, so that the reader enters into the somnambulism of the setting and accepts the recurring images, the similarity of events in Africa and Europe, the way different people's internal lives can rhyme.

However, there were some problems. It had very slight conflict, and passive characters. I find that acceptable, but some would hate it. The end is rather unsatisfying, though an argument could be made for that being the point: the author communicating the meaninglessness of events rather than trying to give them meaning through his work. Also, a lot of characters seemed to be interested in long, discursive discussion of thematically related material, such as the history of captive animals in Czechoslovakia. I'm willing to accept, even embrace, two main characters who are introspective, dreamy and ruminative. But several supporting characters who spout paragraphs of historical research? Not so much.

My biggest problem with the book was some of the points of view. I found the initial section, from the main giraffe's perspective, a trifle overwritten and sometimes encumbered with human knowledge and concepts. Any animal POV is a big risk, one I think you need to take all the way -- writing animal sections throughout or exclusively -- or not take at all. I also didn't think we needed the butcher's point of view at -- he added nothing to the artistry of the story, repeated events we already understood. His only essential role was to connect to the last, foreign correspondent's POV and thus explain the existence of the book. I didn't like the foreign correspondent, I didn't think his POV added anything, and I don't need the existence of the book explained. In fact, given its ethereal charm, I'd almost rather it went unexplained.

In short: a beautiful, enigmatic book I enjoyed listening to. The events are troubling and there's not much resolution, but it's a quick read, so if you want to be challenged and transported, give it a try. ( )
3 vote eilonwy_anne | Jan 12, 2010 |
A few yours ago I read a review of this book on a website and it immediately took me. It took a while before I finally read the book, but it's worth it. The story is sad (and you know that from the beginning). Giraffes come to Czechoslovakia (1973) and are the largest group of giraffes living together in a zoo. Unfortunately, a virus comes among them in 1975, which might have an effect on the cattle. No need to tell what happens...

The book is written from different perspectives, seen through the eyes of the main characters. This makes it interesting, because you see things in different ways. Also the role of communism is large. The story is well told, highly recommended.

http://boekenwijs.blogspot.com/2009/11/giraffe.html ( )
  boekenwijs | Nov 8, 2009 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
J. M. Ledgardprimary authorall editionscalculated
Willems, IneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Democritus, if he were still on earth, would deride a throng gazing with open mouth at a beast half camel, half leopard.

For Marta Anna
First words
I kick now in the darkness and see a coming light, molten, veined through the membrane and fluids of the sac, which contains me.
"They are impossible. There is no such animal."

“I am a giraffe, I am about that space a little above the blade, and my bodily intent is to be elevated above all other living things, in defiance of gravity.”
"I have seen visitors who do not look at the creatures in the zoo except through the lens of their camera and curse when they run out of film, as though they have been made blind."
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0143038966, Paperback)

Marking the debut of an unforgettable talent, this haunting novel rescues a tragedy from historical oblivion in a voice that engulfs the reader like a rapturous dream. In 1975 the largest captive herd of giraffes in the world was slaughtered in the zoo of a small Czechoslovakian town, a massacre that has never been explained. Exploring this mystery, Giraffe is a story, at once vivid and unearthly, of creatures that are alien and silent, of the inhabitants of a totalitarian state, sleepwalking through the "Communist moment," and of captivity and destruction of many kinds. Brilliantly transporting, Giraffe is a modern fable about the ways in which ordinary people become complicit in the crimes committed in their midst, as well as the power of living creatures to enchant us into wakefulness.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:51 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"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 ordered the destruction of the largest captive herd of giraffes in the world. This apparently senseless massacre lies at the heart of J. M. Ledgard's first novel. Ledgard tells the story of the giraffes from the moment of their capture in Africa to their deaths far away behind the Iron Curtain. We see them first through the eyes of Emil, a haemodynamicist (he studies blood flow in vertical creatures) who is chosen to accompany them from Hamburg by barge into Czechoslovakia. There Amina, a sleepwalker, a factory girl, glimpses their arrival, is awakened by them, and goes each day to gaze up at them. She is with them at the end, blinding them with a torch, as Jiri, a sharpshooter, brings them down one by one. "Giraffe" is a story about strangeness, about creatures that are alien, silent, finely mazed, and impossibly stretched. It is also a story about captivity, about Czechoslovakia, a middling totalitarian state in the middle of Europe that is itself asleep, under a spell, a nation of sleepwalkers."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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