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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard

Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006. ISBN: 1-59420-099-8

This is the kind of book the critics love to rave about. And with good reason, I suppose. The book is beautifully and wonderfully written, the kind of writing that reads like poetry much of the time. The last book I remember reading like this was Jane Hamilton's excruciatingly depressing The Map of the World. Here are some examples:

In our [Czechoslovakian] fairy tales the first kings do not arrive windburned in longships from across the sea. They grope blindly from out of the side of breast-shaped hills, caked in peat, as though they are a crop sown by God for this land and no other.

Have you ever read a suicidal thought expressed more poetically than this?:

I know that, were it possible, I might wish my heart would stop for a few seconds on a long afternoon in ČSSR, and I cannot be certain that if I felt that stoppage within me, if I felt crimson stars falling and the coming cosmic collapse, I would have the courage to strike up my heart once more.

So what's it about, you ask? Well, like many artsy books, there really isn't any plot. The entire book is based on a fragment of a story. A herd of giraffes is imported to Czechoslovakia from Africa, 28 in all, and living in a zoo, the herd expands to nearly double its original size. Then the secret police come and massacre the entire herd in one fell swoop. This part of the story is true; apparently it actually happened.

The novel grows organically out of this surrealistically bizarre event. The opening and a few other passages are told from the vantage point of one of the giraffes, Snĕhurka, which means Snow White, so named because of the unusual whiteness of her underbelly and legs, and who becomes the de facto leader of the herd.

But most of the first half is told from the perspective of Emil, a scientist, a hemodynamicist, who studies blood flow in vertical creatures such as men and giraffes. Much of the second half comes to us through the perception of Amina, a somnanbulistic young woman who becomes enamored of the giraffes, and spends a great deal of her time with them. A few others tell their portions of the tale here and there, especially near the end where the slaughter is told by Jiří, the hunter/forester who is drafted to actually shoot the giraffes.

But telling you the story provides little or no understanding of what the book is like. Reading it is like moving through a kind of dreary dreamworld, where everything is shades of grey, yet filled with images as powerful of those found in an Ansel Adams photograph.

So, bottom line, should you read this book? If you like reading arty writing, the kinds of books that tend to win awards, and are talked about by people with artistic pretensions, real or imagined, then you probably should read this one.


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