I was in Prague last summer. It is a beautiful city. It is home to one of the best zoos in the world and I knew nothing about it. It is the second most visited place in Prague. If you view the website for the zoo it has pictures of free roaming giraffes and a history of the zoo. The history mentions nothing about the subject of J.M. Ledgard’s historical fiction debut novel “Giraffe.”
Mr. Ledgard is a journalist with “The Economist” who is a person with diverse interests and experience. Born in the Shetland Islands and educated in England and America, as a political and war correspondent he has been posted to Czechoslovakia and East Africa, and is a supporter of Africa and environmentalism.
The novel “Giraffe” uncovers the extermination of the largest herd of animals held in captivity. It occurred at the Prague zoo while Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule and was deliberately kept silent, up until this novel. There is no mention of it on the Prague Zoo’s website, even today.
For anyone traveling to the Czech Republic it would be a great companion as it blends, local geography, history and local culture with the story. There is an under-current of anti-Communism throughout the book, mostly from a social perspective. The Czechs are symbolically within their own zoo under the Communist rule.
The weakness in the novel is in the first two short chapters in which the author uses one of the giraffes as a narrator. Although there is a multiplicity of narration throughout the novel, each providing individual perspective of the same event, these first two chapters don’t work. A good editor should have noted this for a debut writer of fiction. The prose and plot apart from this are strong throughout. The writing and dialogue is clear and realistic. Minimal use of adjectives is consciously made.
The principal narrator is a scientist whose knowledge of hemodynamics and the biology of giraffes is imparted throughout the novel.
” I am more concerned … with the viscosity of giraffe blood, five time thicker than water, with a multiplication of crimson stars, in better distribution of oxygen, with jugular veins several centimeters in diameter, stoppered with one way valves, in such a way as to regulate the flow from the head when it is lifted from the ground. There are thirty-two giraffes here, each with a wonder net hidden from view. When a giraffe splays its legs and sets down its head to drink, the pressure on its cranial vasculature triples. The giraffe’s cerebral blood vessels are too thin-walled to constrict against it. But for the wonder net, the giraffe would collapse, as cosmonauts do when certain g-force is applied. It is the wonder net that keeps the living form of giraffes pushed up, even to resemble creatures from a world of lesser gravity. When the head goes down, its endless shunts and meanders spread elastically across the base of the cranium, absorbing the flow that rushes in through the carotid artery.”
From the ecological role giraffes play on the plains of Africa and their depiction in art and by historical cultures, to the social condition of life in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, this novel bleeds information and perspective. The author later wrote a well-received novel “Submergence” which ranges from war, politics, espionage, to oceanography, with a venue in Somalia. It would not surprise me if the author has done work with MI6.
The author dedicates the “Giraffe” to the late Czech photographer and avant-garde film maker Alexandr Hackenschmied.
This is a novel worth reading even if you are not traveling to the Czech Republic. For me this novel is an example of why I love my library. I go to it with a long list of TBR books and then discover something on the shelf I otherwise would never have read.
This book was a nice start for 2017.