Published by H-NILAS@h-net. (December, 2007)

J. M. Ledgard. _Giraffe, A Novel_. New York: Penguin, 2006.
304 pp. $14.00 (paperback), ISBN 978-0-1430-3896- 2.

Reviewed for H-NILAS by Karen Assunto, Independent Scholar.

Vertical View

In an article in the _New York Times Literary Magazine_, Charles Siebert writes "We look to dogs now to be not only companions, but also substitute children, emotional and psychological support in the wake of deaths, divorces, and breakups. We are asking them to be, in essence, little people, animate worry beads and stress absorbers ... "[1]. Although Siebert is discussing the relationship between people and dogs, his point about human relationships with animals is exemplified by J. M. Ledgard's novel _Giraffe_. _Giraffe_ operates on three levels: first, it is based on a true story;[2] second, it is a surrealistic metaphor in which giraffes confined in a Czechoslovakian zoo represent the controlled and mind-numbing existence in a socialist state;[3] and third, on the most subtle level, it illustrates the consequences that occur when humans turn to animals to gain some control over their own lives. The metaphor is obviously Ledgard's _raison d'etre_ for the book; however, human psychological needs underlie both the facts and the metaphor.

To help understand human behaviors in _Giraffe_, we need to reflect on Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs. [4] Mazlow places control or dominance in the fourth need level, the need for esteem. This makes sense, because the socialist state supplies basic human needs--food, safety, and even some relationships, although these relationships, as shown in _Giraffe_, are often superficial. In the socialist Czech republic, however, Ledgard's characters achieved esteem through controlling nature. Self-actualization, the highest level in Mazlow's hierarchy, does not exist. Ledgard describes two levels of dominance: that of the average person who exerts control over animals, and that of the nameless bureaucrats who dominate the people below them. Because the effects of dominance, like water, only run downhill, the animals' adversity is doubled.

Control by Average People

The primary human characters in the book--that is, those who are named--exert control over a large herd of giraffes. Ledgard shows us the humans' ever-increasing domination of these animals, beginning with their capture, through their transport to their new habitat at the zoo, and ultimately to their horrifying and tragic deaths.[5] While it is hard to imagine a more benign and harmless population over which to exercise dominance (Emil, one of the characters, describes them as "timid and tolerant of one another" [p. 22]), the giraffes' natural lack of assertiveness is a good likeness to the passivity of the Czech people. The characters have various reasons for their actions. These reasons are chillingly trivial, but to people in need of meaning, the reasons are of paramount importance.

For example, Alois Hus believes that he can create a "new subspecies" (p. 9) of native giraffes by placing them in an environment where they must evolve. Even though the Czechoslovakian climate is far from what the African giraffes are used to, Hus believes that, over time, the animals will adapt to it. "They have migrated. They will find a new home in our zoo. They will be happy here.... Their offspring ... will come to enjoy our winters" (p. 111). This naivete is cruel, since it would take centuries for creatures to evolve (and to what purpose?). It is, however, a reflection of this man's pathetic need for control in an environment that has taken total charge of his being.

In another case, the primary narrator, Emil, a hemodynamicist, believes that by studying the blood circulation of what he calls "vertical" animals, he will be able to develop new materials that will help the state when it places men in permanent colonies on the moon. How Emil proposes to study giraffe circulation is never defined, yet apparently there has already been some work done on this subject, for, as Emil says: "The work has application for cosmonauts and high-altitude fliers.... For instance, the skin of a giraffe is thick to protect it from thorns and is so tightly wrapped as to take on the qualities of an anti-gravity space suit, such as we should like to design, which does not allow blood to settle in the lower extremities of the body" (p. 21). Emil's fantasy that he might be able to contribute something is ultimately shattered by the bureaucracy which he wishes to support.

Bureaucratic Control

The bureaucrats in the Czech state have some control over people, which they exercise in typical fashion--by not giving reasons for their actions. For example, the bureaucrat who initially organizes the giraffes' capture questions Emil to assure that he can be discreet, since the herd of giraffes is a "cover" (for what, we never find out). And Snehurka, the giraffe, overhears some of the Czechs: "There is socialism in our method.... Capitalists capture one or two giraffes, while we take an entire herd; because our intention is political ... " (p. 9).

Finally, the state scientist tells Emil that the giraffes are infected with a contagion that will infect other hoofed beasts and requires their slaughter. He provides no reason for this statement, yet as can be expected from people who are controlled by others, Emil never questions or asks for rationale. The bureaucrat cautions him never to speak of the slaughter; it is a state secret.

In _Giraffe_, Ledgard provides a chilling morality play about what can happen to animals when human needs are not met. The humans in this book are not evil; however, they tinker with nature, ultimately causing the slaughter of innocent creatures. Unfortunately, control issues are not limited to people in socialist states. As the recent brouhaha over Knut the polar bear demonstrates, humans want to be involved in every aspect of animal life, whether it be leaving the abandoned bear to die (one wonders if those advocating this also believe in letting abandoned girl babies in China die) or turning it into a media celebrity.[6] At the most elemental level, _Giraffe_ suggests that we ought to respect animals for what they are, not for what our egos would have us make them.


[1]. "New Tricks," April 8, 2007, p. 40.

[2]. From http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ Giraffe_% 28novel%29:
"_Giraffe_ is based on a true Czechoslovakian story, which [J. M.] Ledgard discovered while working as a journalist in the Czech Republic for _The Economist_ in 2001. In 1975, on the eve of May Day, Czechoslovakian secret police dressed in chemical warfare suits sealed off the zoo in the small Czech town of Dvur Kralove nad Labem and orchestrated the slaying of the zoo's entire population of forty-nine giraffes, the largest captive herd in the world. No reason for the action was ever given, and discussion of the incident was suppressed. Ledgard recounts the story of the giraffes from their capture in Africa to their deaths far away in the Eastern Bloc."

[3]. The primary metaphor used by Ledgard is that of sleepwalking. One of the narrators of the story, Amina, is a sleepwalker. Another narrator, the giraffe Snehurka, describes herself and the other giraffes as "sleepwalking beasts" (p. 159). Even Ledgard's prose style lulls the reader into a somnabulant, zombie-like passivity, reflecting the Czech environment under the socialist state.

[4]. Readers will find information on Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs at

[5]. The giraffes' deaths are vividly rendered, suggesting Baba Yar, Auschwitz, and Ekaterinburg.

[6]. From http://en.wikipedia .org/wiki/ Knut_%28polar_ bear%29:
"Knut (born at the Zoologischer Garten Berlin on 5 December 2006) is a captive-born polar bear who was rejected by his mother at birth and therefore raised by zoo keepers. The first polar bear cub to survive past infancy at the Berlin Zoo for over thirty years, he became a popular tourist attraction and commercial success as well as the subject of international controversy. After the German tabloid magazine _Bild_ ran a quote from an animal rights activist that seemingly called for the death of the young cub, a public outrage was caused worldwide as fans rallied in support of his being hand raised by humans. Knut became the genesis of a mass media phenomenon dubbed 'Knutmania,' which spawned numerous toys, media specials, DVDs, and books."

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