Friday, 21 July 2017

Book Review: The Giraffe's Neck by Judith Schalansky the ancient Greeks knew that everything is in flow or as Heraclitus of Ephesus put it: πάντα ῥεῖ. In bad times this may be a great consolation, in good times it’s more often a terrible threat. Consequently, only few people unreservedly welcome even big change as a challenge that makes life interesting. Most people are less favourable, some downright adverse to all kinds of alteration because in general it goes hand in hand with uncertainty and it requires an effort to adapt to new circumstances. Not everybody is up to such challenge. For more than half a century the East German biology teacher in The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky did her best to lead a dutiful and inconspicuous life, i.e. to survive in the Darwinian sense, but after the German reunification this is no longer enough. Her ways are called antiquated and she is criticised for her lack of sympathy for her students.

Judith Schalansky was born in Greifswald, German Democratic Republic (today: Germany), in September 1980. After her studies of Art History in Berlin and Communication Design in Potsdam, she worked as a lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam bringing out her first book of non-fiction Fraktur Mon Amour in 2006. She then turned her attention to fiction writing and made her literary debut with the sailor’s novel Blau steht dir nicht (Blue Doesn’t Suit You) two years later. Her following books Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will (Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln. Fünfzig Inseln, auf denen ich nie war und niemals sein werde: 2009) and The Giraffe’s Neck (Der Hals der Giraffe. Bildungsroman: 2011) established her as a writer internationally. Since 2013 she is editor of the non-fiction book series Naturkunden (Nature Studies). Judith Schalansky lives in Berlin with her partner.

Inge Lohmark is fascinated by The Giraffe’s Neck and its evolution. As a woman in her mid-fifties, she has spend most of her life introducing students into the eternal laws of biology and drilling them in physical education at Charles Darwin high school in a small East German town. Following the Reunification of 1991, many people have left town to find work in the prosperous West and there are just enough students to keep the school going for another four years. Inge Lohmark’s ninth grade will be the last to graduate before the school will close for good, she doesn’t care, though. After all, she only needs to work for a few more years until her retirement, and then, she didn’t choose her career because she felt a calling for teaching and preparing teenagers for adult life, but because everybody thought that it was the right thing for her to do. According to plan she became a model teacher in the Communist regime: strict, correct and matter-of-fact with her students. Alas, times have changed and in general not for the better as Inge Lohmark can’t help to remark. The town is half-deserted and in a state of increasing dilapidation. Her estranged husband has lost his job and started an ostrich farm to earn a meagre living. Her daughter immigrated to the USA and doesn’t show the slightest intention to make her a grandmother. Her students are all but promising, just a few “possibles” and mostly lost causes. School supervisors and colleagues have advised her to try out modern teaching methods and to treat her students more like equals. Moreover, she notices the first signs of the menopause. She has resigned to it all and just observes evolution at work even when one of the girls in her class is bullied…

Despite its setting, The Giraffe’s Neck is neither high school novel nor bildungsroman as the German subtitle states. Mirroring society on a smaller scale, school just served the author as perfect backdrop against which she made her ageing first-person narrator and protagonist observe her life and surroundings in a three-chaptered inner monologue as if nothing were her business, as if she were an ethnologist studying primitive tribes. There’s no character development worthwhile mentioning, no illumination making the protagonist break through the wall of emotional detachment that she built to protect herself in a Communist regime as well as a family that didn’t appreciate, even less promote individuality and sensitivity. Survival of the fittest has become her pessimistic credo and justification for overlooking human malice – even when her own daughter is its subject. Paradoxically, the advocate of social Darwinism proves incapable of adapting to the altered circumstances in free reunited Germany. In short, often incomplete sentences she meditates with a good dash of irony, if not sarcasm natural selection and the futility to interfere with it. The novel flows over with expressions from biology and genetics as well as with unusual images and similes. And the author herself illustrated her book.

When I browsed some reviews of The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky, I was surprised by how many found this short German novel unbearable to read and gave up on it mid-way – while I just loved it! Admittedly, its protagonist is a rather loathsome and pathetic specimen of a teacher, but the point is that she has an over five decades long history that formed her pessimistic – Darwinist – view of the world, that led her to refuse all emotional – potentially harmful – involvement with people and that made her incapable of leaving her long-established rut when circumstances changed after the fall of communism. And then, behind the bitter rants hides some truth. Our society is competitive and often harsh. Bullying happens… and like Inge Lohmark the majority opts to look away in order to avoid trouble. If we like it or not, each one of us is her to a certain extent. Thus my recommendation of this novel.

* * * * * 

This review is a contribution to
(images linked to my reading lists):

1 comment:

  1. I can get what made you like the novel. It doesn't attract me at this time but who knows.


Dear anonymous spammers: Don't waste your time here! Your comments will be deleted at once without being read.