Giraffes and Communists Collide in Eastern Europe

“I’m a giraffe,” Sophia Loren once said. “I even walk like a giraffe—with a long neck and legs. It’s a pretty dumb animal, mind you.” Dumb but dignified, J. M. Ledgard would doubtless respond. If his first novel doesn’t quite put the world’s tallest mammals on a pedestal, it still leaves you thinking rather more of those improbably leggy ruminants than of your fellow man. Indeed, it’s only Giraffe’s low estimate of humanity that holds the book back from being soppily anthropomorphic. You can’t project the nobility of man onto dumb animals unless you believe in it, and Mr. Ledgard is at lengthy pains to point out that 1970’s Czechoslovakia, where most of his novel is set, was not the epicenter of man’s nobility. Communism, Giraffe tells you over and over again, was dumber than any animal.

The book is based on a true story. On April 30, 1975, in the small Czech town of Dvür Králové, 49 giraffes (23 of them pregnant) were gunned down and dismembered on government orders. Mr. Ledgard—for the past 11 years a foreign correspondent for The Economist—has fashioned from this bizarre, still unexplained incident a political parable that verges on the Kafkaesque. Stunned and ethereal, Giraffe begins like a dream but ends like a nightmare. Not for nothing is one of its narrators a sleepwalker.

But before we meet the sleepwalker, we meet Snêhurka: “I kick now in the darkness and see a coming light, molten, veined through the membrane and fluids of the sac, which contains me. I am squeezed towards the light. Let it be said: I enter this world without volition.” Not so the reader, who presses greedily on into this new-seen world, especially when the being doing the seeing turns out not to be human: “The first thing I see is my own form, my hoofs impossibly far away, slicked with fluid, and my mazed hide, bloodied, flickering in the haze, burning, as though I am not passing from my mother to the ground, but from the constellation Cameleopardalis into the earth’s atmosphere.”

From here the book gets into what one feels obliged to call its lengthy stride, with Snêhurka and the rest of her tower captured and taken from the scorch of the African Savannah to the gray chill of an Eastern European zoo. Also along for the ride is Emil, a specialist in hemodynamics whose day job is designing space suits for astronauts and whose knowledge of the blood flow of tall creatures has been deemed useful for the transportation. In the company of his charges, though, Emil’s clear-sighted rationalism is soon replaced by a light-headed worship. He can’t get enough of these wondrous beasts “and their rising blood.” “They are impossible,” he tells himself, “there is no such animal.

Equally impossible, Emil keeps telling us, is life under communist rule, a system whose “youthful symbol is a book of knowledge set alight” and which results in metaphysical stasis—a freeze-frame in which there is “no now and it is possible to live without remembering the year, and to have no sense of time passing.” Hence Emil’s habit of mentally photographing what he sees as images of contentment. “This is what I do when I see beauty. I take a picture, I shutter it with a blink, keep it in my mind, and turn it this way and that until the Communist moment recedes and beauty is in the ascendant.”

Lucky him. As Emil sees it, the rest of the populace is condemned to wandering aimlessly through state-organized chaos—rather like those poor captive giraffes in his charge. Rather, but not quite. In fact, Mr. Ledgard’s book suggests, the Czechs have more in common with the okapi, the giraffe’s smaller cousins. They’ve never had to reach up for their food and have not, therefore, had the giraffe’s grace thrust upon them.

Beauty is the by-product of struggle, of the evolutionary command to adapt or die. But communism seeks to end history by the creation of utopia—literally, a non-place. Non-places call for non-people, of course—hence, Giraffe argues, the air of living death that hung about postwar Eastern Europe. It’s always best, in other words, to stick your neck out.

As a reporter for The Economist, Mr. Ledgard perhaps by definition writes from the right, but novelists need to come at a story from more than one direction if they’re to get anywhere near its truth. Giraffe is as laden down with agitprop as anything by Brecht. Pretty much everyone who talks in it says the same thing—that communism is even less than it’s cracked up to be. Worse, they say it in the same slow, numinous, image-heavy voice. Read aloud at random from the book and you will have no idea who’s talking. This would be a fault in any novel, but in a novel whose specific intent is to make clear the Identikit restrictions of a political system, it spells double trouble.

The good news is that, as the novel builds towards its bloody climax, Mr. Ledgard’s pulse quickens, and his prose grows more supple and muscular. The reason is simple: a new narrator, Jirí, who’s given not to abstract portentousness but to the concrete and tactile. The reluctant gunman hired by the state to kill the giraffes, Jirí takes us through the procedure with precision-detail disgust.

Mr. Ledgard really does serve up a vision of hell here, with Jirí atop a fence ordering a helper to shine a flashlight below the giraffes’ ears, the better for his bullets to penetrate the most vulnerable area of their craniums. Emil, meanwhile, is down on the ground, wading through blood and guts as the beasts are buckled and broken, the better to be thrown onto the trucks that will take them away. As a vision of death in life, it makes the novel’s droopily metaphoric moments look more pallid than ever. Like the communists he despises, Mr. Ledgard should leave the comforts of his ideas and beliefs behind and get to grips with the resistant world.

Christopher Bray, a biographer and journalist, is film critic of The First Post. He lives in London.

Giraffes and Communists  Collide in Eastern Europe