Based on actual events, Ledgard’s somber first novel tells the story of a few dozen ill-fated giraffes brought from Africa into communist Czechoslovakia in 1973.
Thirty-two giraffes, to be exact, which here become 32 towering symbols for a grim, misguided Soviet regime. The story is told by Emil, a “haemodynamicst” who’s charged with safely shepherding the animals, captured in Africa, from West Germany via barge across the Iron Curtain. The narrative becomes duller, with the imagery more gray, as Emil drifts deeper into Czechoslovakia. But other voices emerge, including that of a giraffe named Snehurka (Czech for “snow white”) and Amina, a sleepwalking factory worker who takes a liking to the animals when they arrive in her hometown. Amina’s sections bring some grace and a touch of magical-realism to the prose that’s absent elsewhere—her discussions of her dreams and factory work (she colors Christmas ornaments) brighten the story even while they expose how glum and oppressive her world has become. The herd grew to nearly 50 by April 30, 1975, when a virus forced the authorities to approve a secret purge of the animals, and more characters arrive in the chapters that relate the nightmarish task. Their perspectives—of a virologist, a sharpshooter, a slaughterhouse worker—give the book a propulsiveness that’s lacking in the earlier portions. Ledgard, a Scottish-born foreign correspondent for the Economist, has clearly gone to pains to get the details of this hidden communist-era scandal, and the book might have worked better as an extended piece of reporting. Ledgard creates potent, beautifully observed passages, but his metaphorical connections are obvious—Amina’s no more a sleepwalker than her doctrinaire comrades, and the noble giraffes can see above the walls erected by the myopic communist regime.
Elegant and carefully assembled, but hobbled by a persistent solemnity.