JONATHAN CAPE, £16.99. Order for £15.99 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897
Giraffe, by JM Ledgard
Communism gets it in the neck from a tall story about giraffes
Thursday 27 April 2006
On one level, JM Ledgard's debut novel is the story of a herd of giraffes taken from Africa to a zoo in 1970s Czechoslovakia. On another level - and we are frequently reminded that giraffes experience the world at a level different from our own - it is no less than the story of Czechoslovakia, a country and people caught in "the communist moment".
The giraffes are accompanied on part of their journey from Hamburg by Emil. His day job involves the study of blood flow in vertical creatures, but he occupies a dual role, sent along as an agent for the shipping company.
Emil becomes aware of the giraffes' otherness. Ledgard's descriptions of the animals emphasise this at the same time as subtly associating them with the trappings of totalitarianism: "The height of a giraffe makes watchtowers of them." The insistence on "the communist moment" is explained when Emil spends his first night in West Germany. He listens to pop songs and regards them as belonging to "now". In the communist moment, Emil writes, "there is no now, and it is possible to live without remembering the year, and to have no sense of time passing".
We live in the copywriters' moment. A jacket blurb these days tends to reveal two-thirds of any plot. In Giraffe, the entire narrative is encapsulated on the inside flap. That Ledgard still manages a gradual build-up of tension is evidence of his storyteller's skill. He does it by installing a number of different narrators and having them pass the storytelling baton, starting with Snehurka, the giraffes' protagonist, and moving on to Emil and others including Jiri, a sharpshooter.
Emil tells us that the optic nerve of a giraffe is as thick as an index finger, its eye the biggest in the animal kingdom. We infer that this ability to see further than any other creature leads to the giraffes' fate in the communist moment.
Amina, factory worker and sleepwalker, loves the animals because they awaken her. She would like them to perform the same function for her countrymen, "a nation asleep".
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's short-story collection 'Mortality' will be published in October by Serpent's Tail
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Germanwings crash: Police make 'significant discovery' at home of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz
- 2 JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
- 3 The West has it totally wrong on Lee Kuan Yew
- 4 #FreeTheNipple: Women in Iceland bare breasts in solidarity with trolled student
- 5 Jeremy Clarkson calls on trolls to leave producer Oisin Tymon alone: 'None of this is his fault'
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
One Direction fans campaign to buy the band after Zayn Malik quits
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
James May hints Top Gear days are over following Jeremy Clarkson's BBC exit
James May hints he will not continue on Top Gear without Jeremy Clarkson
Nigel Farage brands LGBT activists 'filth' and 'scum' and accuses them of scaring away his children after they invade his local pub
Ukip supporters are 55 or older, white and socially conservative, finds British Social Attitudes Report
JK Rowling responds to fan tweeting she 'can't see' Dumbledore being gay
Russia threatens Denmark with nuclear weapons if it tries to join Nato defence shield
Jeremy Clarkson sacked live: Alan Yentob 'wouldn't rule out' ex Top Gear host's BBC return
Germanwings plane crash live: Andreas Guenter Lubitz intentionally crashed flight 9525 into the Alps in act of mass murder and suicide – latest