Saturday, September 2, 2006


By J.M. Legard

Penguin Press, $24.95, 304 pages


If Simon and Garfunkel are correct, zebras are the reactionaries of the animal world; why then, did the commies kill the giraffes? J.M. Legard answers this question in his surrealistic first novel “Giraffe.” The novel centers on an actual event, the 1975 slaughter of the largest giraffe herd in captivity in the world in a Czechoslovakian zoo.

The story of why the communist government of the former Czechoslovakia would do such a thing is interesting in itself, but the book is really how normal people survived in the mind-numbing bosom of communist totalitarianism.

Red Czechoslovakia was reasonably benign as compared to Stalinist Russia, North Korea or Romania; however, it came replete with the demand for conformity and repetition of a communist state where innovation was viewed with suspicion. As one character observes, the end of the communist state will not lay in its evil nature, but in its lack of imagination.

The characters in the book cope by sleepwalking, some literally and some figuratively. Perhaps the characters, who manage to adjust the best to communist rule, are the captive giraffes who never truly sleep. At night they wander about in a state of near sleep but their eyes are always open to danger around them. Conformity however, profits them little. In the end, they are declared to be “enemies of the state” and liquidated. I’ll leave the reader to discover how that comes about.

Amina, the female human protagonist, is a real sleepwalker, and her affliction leads her into several perilous situations. This may be as a result of an unconscious death wish. Amina is aware that she is slowly being poisoned by the noxious fumes from the Christmas decoration factory in which she is employed.

This appears to be a metaphor for the poisoning of eastern European landscape by the military-industrial complex of the Warsaw Pact. The others sleepwalk by daydreaming, mostly of the Czech myths of the old times. Along the way we learn something of the nation’s rich folklore and something of the history of zoo-keeping.

The author also takes us on several side journeys to Africa and to East Germany at the high-water mark of international communism. 1975 was the year Saigon fell to Communist North Vietnam, and it was four years before the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that signaled the beginning of the end for the Warsaw Pact.

The author is a writer for the Economist and a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. In his duties as an investigative reporter, he unearthed the giraffe story. Some of the participants in the real story were based on interviews he did for the project.

The book will not be for everyone. When the author dabbles is surrealism, he does so erratically. For example, he gives Snehurka, the female giraffe protagonist, a human voice replete with knowledge of geography and politics. However, after she enters the zoo, we don’t hear from her again, even at the hour of her death.

One is left to wonder whether this silence is a subtle observation on the part of the author regarding the mind-stifling nature of communist control. In the end, one suspects it is an act of omission on the part of the author or overzealous editing by the publisher.

Parents should be warned that, despite the compelling picture on the dust cover, this is not a book suitable for children. Aside from the horrible killing of the animals, it contains casual lesbianism and abuse of alcohol.

Realism firmly sets in when we come to the chapters, truly gruesome, regarding the massacre of the giraffes. This is not because of the nature of the killings, which are done in the most humane way that the penny-pinching and unimaginative communist regime can come up with on the fly. It is probably no more horrible than the livestock massacres that occur in North America and Europe when an animal epidemic occurs.

The real horror is in the fact that the humans who have bonded with the giraffes are forced to participate. Each tells the story from his or her perspective. No pet owner who has ever been forced to put a beloved animal to sleep will read this section without shuddering.

I got the review copy of this book by mistake. My beat is usually national security and the publisher sent me the wrong book. I leafed through it and decided to review it anyway. I’m glad I did.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

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