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Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Giraffe's Neck - Judith Schalansky (translated by Shaun Whiteside) - 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

I’m torn!! Not the first time this has happened, and possibly won’t be the last, however with this month being “Women In Translation Month”, the angst is a little more to the fore. This month I want to do my best to highlight the richness, diversity, depth of fiction (and poetry – but more on that later) available for your reading pleasure, as well as highlighting the fact that women only represent approximately 30% of writers translated into English. So what to do when you come across a book you simply don’t like? I have a few options available to me:
  1. Don’t write a review. This is at times my preferred option, and I have used this on a number of occasions simply to avoid being critical of a writer or translator or publisher. In fact I have stopped receiving review copies from one publisher as they must believe I don’t read their books; I actually do but don’t like them!!!
  2. Write a review and only point out the highlights of the work. This approach is not my style; I don’t want people thinking every book I read is a four or five star rated piece.
  3. Go “hell for leather” and rip the book to shreds, again, not my style (although I have been quite forceful with my reviews on a couple of books, both best sellers and there are supporters of this approach); or
  4. Just point out why I don’t like it. Soft option I suppose

So I’m going the soft option here, I’m sure this work has a number of supporters, and given it made the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist earlier this year, there are supporters from the literary world.

In school I did not study biology, in fact my bent towards the sciences was extremely limited, so when people speak of Charles Darwin, I think evolution and survival of the fittest. When somebody mentions “annidation” or “monoculture” I have no idea what they are talking about, so when pages in a fiction novel has these words as headings, my eyes glaze over, my head gets closer to my shoulders (ie. My neck disappears) and my eyes scan across the page taking little notice of the words in front of me.

“In a nutshell, “The Giraffe’s Neck” features Inge Lohmark, our protagonist, an ageing teacher of biology at the Charles Darwin High School in East Germany, in an area which is slowly losing its population. The obvious “survival of the fittest” analogy is possibly part of the repartee. (Possibly using the word “analogy” in a review of a book about “biology” is a bad choice – I’m not going to change it though).

In short, sharp, regimented prose the feel of East Germany is meant to be displayed. This is a characteristic I did not like in Julia Franck’s “Back to Back” (translated by Anthea Bell)  nor have I become a fan since:

It just wasn’t worth it, dragging the weak ones along with you. They were nothing but millstones that held the rest back. Born recidivists. Parasites on the healthy body of the class. Sooner or later the dimmer bulbs would be left behind anyway. It was advisable to confront them with the truth as early as possible, rather than giving them another chance after each failure. With the truth that they simply didn’t meet the conditions required to become a fully-fledged member of society. What was the point of being hypocritical? Not everyone could do it. Any why should they? There were duds in every year. With some, you could be happy if you managed to instil a few fundamental virtues. Politeness, punctuality, cleanliness. It was a shame they’d stopped giving out citizenship grades. Hard work. Cooperation. Contribution. Proof of the shortcomings of the present educational system.

Every second page contains a heading in the top right hand corner, alluding to the content, for example “menopause”

How tired she was all of a sudden. Sit down. Just for a minute. Rest her head against the wall. In the mirror above the washbasin part of her head. Her forehead. Her wrinkles. Her hairline, the hair grey, for over twenty years. Deep breaths for a few minutes. The blue-green tracksuit in her lap. Legs bare, cheesy pale, as if there hadn’t been a summer. Her palms felt cool on her thighs. The warmth surged up in waves. To her head. Over her eyes a flicker and suddenly sweat. A textbook hot flush. But it wasn’t in a textbook. They didn’t actually learn about that. No one told them about the body’s second transformation. Creeping renaturation. Atrophy of the uterus. Discontinuance of the period. Dry vagina. Faded flesh. It was only ever about blossoming. Autumn. My goodness. Yes, it was autumn. Rustling leaves. Where would a second spring come from now? The idea was ridiculous. Bringing in the harvest. Fetching in the fishing-nets. Thanksgiving mood. Anticipation of the pension. Evening of life. Mists and mellow fruitfulness. But where did that weariness come from? The weather, or the first day of school?

As mentioned there is quite possibly a linkage to the headings and a biological sequence, surely this has more to offer than the idea that a school, an ageing teacher are now simply too slow for the modern world and can no longer survive. But not having any background in species, the thin thread of a monther who has no relationship with her husband, who has lost her daughter overseas and who categorises her students as “feral”, “colourless”, joyless” or having “no prospect of improvement” is too skeletal for my tiny mind.

Having said that, the book does contain a few lucid moments:

In the old days, the children were supposed to be brought up to be progressive, peace-loving people; now they were to be free. And freedom was nothing but an insight into necessity. No one was free. And no one was supposed to be. Even the compulsory schooling was nothing but a state-organised deprivation of freedom. Concocted by the education minister’s conference. It wasn’t about communicating knowledge, it was about getting the children used to a regular day and the dominant ideology of the moment. That meant an assurance of dominance. A few years of supervision to prevent the worst. Gymnasium as a way of keeping them quiet until they reached maturity. Good citizens. Obedient underlings. A constant supply for the pension system.

As mentioned above this work was longlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (along with four other German works) and I as part of my Shadow Jury duties it was a book which fell through the cracks (you try reading fifteen works in a month!!!). Fortunately it is not a book I would have listed in my top six for the year, and personally I have it at the bottom of the pile (along with a couple of others). If you know a bit about Charles Darwin, or you enjoy East German tales prior to the wall coming down (although this was written in 2011) you may enjoy this a little more than me. Nice artworks throughout though, and relevant to the text, just don’t know why they’re there, because our author can draw too?


Cassandra Lin said...

As a reader, it seems to me like stating your dislike of the book while providing ample quotes is a good compromise -- I can see the prose you did not like the style of and draw my own conclusions.

1streading said...

I must admit I liked this one, Tony. I thought there was quite a lot of irony involved in the narration, and also a commentary on the change from East Germany to unification. I do recall others being less enthusiastic!

Emma said...

I had to DNF that one, I thought it was going nowhere.