Inge Lohmark is an ageing biology teacher in the Charles Darwin High School in a former East German backwater with no time for her pupils, fellow teachers or almost anyone else in her life. The world is changing around her, yet she refuses to accept replacement of the old order by what she sees as inferior people and systems.
From the opening lines, Judith Schalansky, in her second novel, sweeps the reader up into Lohmark's particular world-view – one that is ironic, excoriating and at times disturbing for its almost psychopathic lack of empathy.
Her firm belief in Darwin's theory of evolution leads to some uncomfortable moments. She witnesses one of the girls in her class being bullied on the school bus, yet does nothing to intervene, content to observe with the objectivity of a scientist conducting an experiment. She recalls the time when, years ago, she ignored the distressed pleading of her then-young daughter in a class she was teaching and shoved her away.
It's unlikeable behaviour, but her honesty is engaging and there are moments when an inner emotional life reveals itself, hinting at a softer centre – news of her absent daughter causes her to well up, and she recalls the early days of her marriage with something approaching fondness. ("It had never been a great love affair. They had never needed that. She'd always liked the fact that he had been good with animals.")
Lohmark admires the simplicity she sees in nature. Human life with all its untidy complexity is hard to negotiate and bear. "How good it must be to follow an instinct. Without sense of understanding," she thinks at one point. Indeed.
Schalansky's short, choppy sentences, expertly translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, add to the sense of Lohmak trying to keep control of a changing world around her and her place within it: people are leaving to move to the west; the old values are disappearing; the school's future is in doubt. The East Germany she has grown up in is in flux too: the Berlin Wall has fallen, communism has ended and what will happen next is unknown. Will she and it adapt and change, or will they remain as they are and become anachronisms?
The story is also, entertainingly, a biology lesson – Lohmark's thoughts and school classes are packed with information on evolution and nature, and are illustrated too. Schalansky's use of the evolution of the giraffe's neck as an analogy for the human condition is inspired. An unusual, distinctive novel that informs as well as entertains.