Giraffe by J. M. Legard
J. M. Legard’s Giraffe starts, not surprisingly, from the perspective of a giraffe. Sněhurka, “Snow White” in Czechoslovakian, provides details of her birth and abduction by Czechoslovakian agents from the African savanna. After two chapters and before the book threatens to slip into hokey, prolonged giraffe narration, the narrative perspective shifts. This much can be gleaned from the dust jacket: in 1975 an entire heard of captive giraffes were massacred in communist Czechoslovakia and the particulars of the slaying still remain obscure. The come hither blurb is enticement enough to delve into the slender volume -- the page layouts are suggestively tall or giraffe-like -- but experiencing the narrative around an actual event that seems given to the cliché “stranger than fiction” is the reward in reading Giraffe.
The book’s plot moves linearly through the perspectives of several narrators. Sometimes the narration overlaps. Giraffe’s climax is related multiple times from the vantage of different narrators. The trek of the giraffes from Hamburg to their new home in a small Czechoslovakian village is related from the perspective of Emil, a hemodynamicist from Prague. When the giraffes arrive at the zoo, Amina, a somnambulist and factory worker, guides the plot for the next year and a half. Jiří, a sharpshooter, woodsman, and devoted party member, is introduced close to the book’s climax. A few other narrators appear for single chapters to illuminate crucial plot points, but Emil, Amina, and Jiří provide the bulk of Giraffe’s narrative heft.
Each character is fundamentally different, but they all, to a certain extent, employ illusions to escape from the “communist moment.” For Emil it’s the dream to retire to his family home in the hills, far removed from ČSSR Prague by a provincial existence. Amina sees herself taking flight: “If it were possible, even in sleepwalking, I would stand on the Charles Bridge, with my hands above my head, and lift off out of the Communist moment, just as John the Baptist appeared, on my lithograph, to be rising from the Jordan, on this, the day of his nativity.” For Jiří it’s a life in the woods free from politics and difficult questions. Additionally, all three are complicit in the murder of the giraffes.
One of the most attractive features of Giraffe is its enchanting prose, which blends the reality-based narrative with fantasy to create an impression of a detached population, groggy under Communist rule, yet fully aware of the past and the present. Amina figuratively embodies this blurring between dreams and reality as it is sometimes difficult to discern when she is sleepwalking or awake. It is only within this haze that the bizarre atrocity of murdering the largest captive group of giraffes in the history of the world can be rationalized.
Combined, the perspectives of the narrators furnish elements of ancient European culture, folklore, and religiosity that seem very real, yet subdued during “communist moment.” The subtle tension between history, culture, and Communism are eloquently expressed through Emil, the primary narrator for the first third of Giraffe:
There were vodniks before there were Czechoslovakians. In certain Byzantine mosaics you can see over the shoulders of Justinian and Theodora to a vodnik half risen from a warm lagoon. The vodnik has been exiled too long in our landlocked Czechoslovakia to move anymore in the sober and athletic way of those mosaics. He has grown thin and is seen most often in the local hospoda, or pub, where he fancies his green skin is disguised in the weak electric light of the Communist moment.
These little flourishes of history and myth give the narrators a palpable depth and the reader a sense that these characters, or types, have existed for centuries regardless of who is in power. The narrators are likeable, moral beings and this is the fundamental ironic tension within Giraffe. The book is largely a meditation on how and why people are driven to commit horrid acts.
Steve, a foreign correspondent, is given the final narrative perspective from the year 1999, well after communism has passed. While rendered in the same form as the rest of the novel, it’s an odd journalistic endnote. Perhaps it serves to illuminate the distances in language and time traversed by Legard to discover the basis of what would become Giraffe. Regardless, it is masterful novel.
Giraffe by J. M. Legard
The Penguin Press