Synopses & Reviews
An astounding novel based on the true story of the life and mysterious death of the largest herd of giraffes ever held in captivity, in a Czechoslovakian town sleepwalking through communism in the early 1970s.
In 1975, on the eve of May Day, secret police dressed in chemical warfare suits sealed off a zoo in a small Czechoslovakian town and ordered the destruction of the largest captive herd of giraffes in the world. This apparently senseless massacre lies at the heart of J. M. Ledgard's haunting first novel, which recounts the story of the giraffes from their capture in Africa to their deaths far away behind the Iron Curtain.
At once vivid and unearthly, Giraffe is an unforgettable story about strangeness, about creatures that are alien and silent, about captivity, and finally about Czechoslovakia, a middling totalitarian state and its population of sleepwalkers. It is also a story that might never have been told. Ledgard, a foreign correspondent for the Economist since 1995, unearthed the long-buried truth behind the deaths of these giraffes while researching his book, spending years following leads throughout the Czech Republic.
In prose reminiscent of Italo Calvino and W. G. Sebald, he imbues the story with both a gripping sense of specificity and a profound resonance, limning the ways the giraffes enter the lives of the people around them, the secrecy and fear that permeate 1970s Czechoslovakia, and the quiet ways in which ordinary people become complicit in the crimes committed in their midst.
"This phantasmagoric debut novel by Economist correspondent Ledgard recounts the extermination of the world's largest captive herd of giraffes in a Czechoslovakian zoo in 1975. The story begins with the animals' 1973 capture in East Africa (narrated by Snehurka, the herd leader); then Emil, a haemodynamicist (a biologist who studies vertical blood flow), narrates their journey to the zoo, where the animals serve as entertainment for workers like Amina, who is fascinated by the giraffes and spends her free time with the silent creatures (they remind her of 'a nation asleep, of workers normalized into sleepwalkers'). Other narrators come and go, including a virologist in a secret government laboratory and a forester/sharpshooter. Throughout, Emil ruminates on the ills of the Czech 'Communist moment,' but he is also this inventive novel's weakness, as he remains ungraspable and too much inside his dreamy, free-associative head. Once the giraffes are discovered to be diseased, their fate is sealed, and the novel's narrators converge as the government's secret plan to shoot the animals unfolds. Ledgard's novel has bursts of sparkling intensity the giraffe massacre, told from the sharpshooter's point of view, is particularly wrenching but a stronger cast of narrators would have better bolstered Ledgard's magnificent material. (On sale Aug 21)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"A bravura debut, a rich composition with suggestions of steelier Scottish organizational rigor beneath its mazy surface." San Francisco Chronicle
"Giraffe is as sinewy and mesmerizing as a fairy tale; it stirs up the reader's subconscious. Not a word is wasted." The Plain Dealer
"Ledgard's terse yet elegant prose possesses a strange other-worldliness that make it read as....a dream of Milan Kundera that was never published." Time Out Chicago
"A moving allegory of suffering in captivity and a poetic account of the asphyxiation of spiritual life in a repressive society." Chicago Tribune
"Ledgard is an interesting and serious writer, and his book remains in the mind." New York Times
Marking the debut of an unforgettable talent, this haunting novel rescues a tragedy from historical oblivion in a voice that engulfs the reader like a rapturous dream. In 1975 the largest captive herd of giraffes in the world was slaughtered in the zoo of a small Czechoslovakian town, a massacre that has never been explained. Exploring this mystery, Giraffe is a story, at once vivid and unearthly, of creatures that are alien and silent, of the inhabitants of a totalitarian state, sleepwalking through the "Communist moment," and of captivity and destruction of many kinds. Brilliantly transporting, Giraffe is a modern fable about the ways in which ordinary people become complicit in the crimes committed in their midst, as well as the power of living creatures to enchant us into wakefulness.
About the Author
J. M. Ledgard was born on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, in 1968, and educated in England, Scotland, and America. He has been a foreign correspondent for the Economist since 1995. He divides his time between Europe and Africa.