The Giraffe’s Neck Synopsis :
Adaptation is everything, something Frau Lomark is well aware of as the biology teacher at the Charles Darwin High School in a country backwater of the former East Germany. It is the beginning of the new school year, but, as people look west in search of work and opportunities, it’s future begins to be in doubt.
Frau Lohmark has no sympathy for her pupils and scorns indulgent younger teachers who talk to their students as peers, play games with them, or (worse) even go so far as to have ‘favourites’. A strict devotee of the Darwinian principle of evolution, Frau Lohmark believes that only the best specimens of a species are fit to succeed. But now everything and everyone resists the old way of things and Inge Lohmark is forced to confront her most fundamental lesson: she must adapt or she cannot survive.
Translated from the original German by Shaun Whiteside
Since childhood I’ve had a real thing for giraffes – think it must have something to do with the grace with which they carry their awkward frame (they never look phased by anything!) and of course their wise and gentle eyes. So Judith Schalansky’s The Giraffe’s Neck was one of my rare ‘impulse buys’.
This is not a piece of literature for readers who need ‘likeable’ leads – our protagonist and narrator Frau Lohmark is distinctly unlikeable.
At first, I found humour in her stream-of-consciousness dark observations intermingled with her description of events occurring in real-time. Schalansky cleverly steers readers into that judgemental space it is accepted we all have, but rarely air in public.
By the bus shelter, a few teenagers as usual, killing time.Swearing, smoking, drinking. No wonder none of them had got the hang of Darwin. Or made it into her class. Tarmac covered with little puddles of spit. Boys that age plainly had a special relationship with their spit. The main thing was bodily fluid.
But we soon realise that Frohmark’s thoughts come from a much darker place. I think the Irish Times’ capture much of her character in their description, a ‘Darwinian bully’.
We are torn between feeling a degree of sympathy (or pity?) for Lohmark, who is a product of her environment and experiences (like all of us), and being repulsed and alarmed by the fatalistic thoughts and contradictory behaviours she justifies through extreme application of her beliefs. Zealots are scary – if history tells us anything, it is that.
Although a relatively short novel, particularly when you take into account the frequent full page drawings/diagrams, it took me a few sittings to read The Giraffe’s Neck. In addition to it being tough seeing the world through the eyes of an emotionally stunted zealot, I found its lengthy passages of short, almost staccato prose, tiring to read. I give full credit to Shaun Whiteside for the quality of the translation though, given the amount of scientific content and subtle revelation of the depth of Lohmark’s psychosis.
Was The Giraffe’s Neck an enjoyable read? No at all.
Did it leave an impression on me. Definitely, but not to the full extent it could have.
BOOK RATING: The Story 2.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5 ; Overall 2.75
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Genre: Literature, Drama, Translation
With this review I am participating in German Literature Month V.
Author Information: Judith Schalansky was born in 1980 in Greifswald in the former East Germany. She studied art history and communication design and works as a freelance writer in Berlin. Schalansky’s previous book Atlas of Remote Islands won the Stiftung Buchkunst (Book Art Foundation) award for ‘the most beautiful book of the year’ and was published to acclaim in the UK and the USA in 2010. The Giraffe’s Neck is her first novel to be published in English, and was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015. She lives in Berlin.