Jonathan Ledgard’s first novel, Giraffe, is a strange and compelling tale set in the communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s. The story, with its savage climax, about a herd of giraffes captured in Africa and transported to a Czechoslovak zoo is all the more haunting because it is rooted in real events.
This is not a Cold War spy thriller. It is a story about the complex, difficult and testing, personal battles fought to preserve one’s own human spirit and compassion; to find the courage to act in a way that defies an all-enveloping totalitarianism and courts ruin or anonymous destruction. The story is set in a Czechoslovakia where many live resignedly in a limbo, dreamlike state, the consequence of the country’s failed “Prague Spring.”
There are obvious parallels between the plight of the captive, innocent animals and the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia. The masters of both the human and animal herds want to control every aspect of the lives of their charges.
The 32 giraffes are part of a grand Socialist scheme to demonstrate communist superiority. An official explains the authorities not only want to maintain the largest herd in captivity but to create a new subspecies, Camelopardalis bohemica, adapted to Central Europe’s snowy winters.
The story is told by characters whose lives become entwined with the giraffes’ fate. One of these, Emil, is a haemodynamicist – a scientist who studies the blood flow of vertical creatures – and who is despatched to meet the ship delivering the giraffes to Hamburg. He resents communism which he says “lengthens and darkens the corridors of the Czechoslovak Socialist republic, year by year, into the corridors of nightmares” but, like most of his compatriots, he makes compromises necessary to avoid danger and secure some comforts.
Others drawn into the tale include Amina, a country girl who works in a factory close to the zoo where the giraffes arrive. She is a sleepwalker and the beautiful creatures grip her imagination and fill her dreams. Another is Jiri, a forester, hunter and expert sharpshooter, who is a loyal communist because it allows him to lead a distinctly un-communist life in the wilderness that he loves.
Ledgard displays dazzling imagination and originality when he allows one of the giraffes, Snehurka, to credibly present her own tale. His considerable knowledge of nature and wild animals bring to life Snehurka not as a cutely anthropomorphic “Jungle Book” character but in an entirely believable, unsentimental manner.
Ledgard masterfully conjures up many striking images such as the barge bearing its strange cargo, with towering heads protruding impassively through the tarpaulins sheltering them as it slowly makes its progress from the sea along canals and rivers to Czechoslovakia startling observers, including West German nudists and coupled lovers, on the water’s banks by day and drifting under the stars like a lost dream through sleeping towns and cities.
Emil says: “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 book is filled with connections between people and ideas, many apparently improbable, but which are shown to be linked in a web, like the complex veins and arteries in the giraffes’ heads and bodies which allow them to survive.
This kaleidescope of connections encompasses characters out of childhood books, polar bears whose fates are decreed by English kings and Cromwell, mythological Czech water spirits, mermaids, Archduke Franz Ferdinand among many others. The images also provide snapshots of Czechoslovak history.
A painting of giraffes by Salvador Dali is mentioned in the book and there is indeed a quality of surrealism in the slightly suffocating atmosphere that pervades much of the narrative, something emphasised by an often chimerical dialogue as if the characters are putting into words the snatched thoughts and uninvited images that fleetingly establish their presence but rarely stay long enough to be sculpted into form by words.
The threads linking the characters are drawn tightly together after the giraffes are suspected of being infected with a disease that could spread to the farm livestock essential to the country’s economy and their destruction is ordered in a secret nighttime shooting.
In this novel Jonathan Ledgard has given notice of the kind of complex intellectual territory he endeavours to explore. It is not easy terrain but the first expedition has been a triumph. Ledgard’s thorough research provides fascinating information about giraffes and you will probably want to visit a zoo soon after reading the book.
By Jonathan Ledgard