A state cover-up forms the basis for a sinister fairy tale in Jonathan Ledgard’s novel
Jonathan Ledgard’s first novel, Giraffe, is a many-faceted work that reads like a dark Central European bedtime story at times and like a spare Cold War thriller at others. The book, which grew out of his discovery of a secret 1975 operation involving the extermination of the largest captive herd of giraffes in the world in a zoo in Czechoslovakia, is also an impressive piece of journalism.
Ledgard, a longtime correspondent for The Economist who is based in Prague but covers Central and East Africa for the respected British news magazine, answered questions about his book while on break from an assignment in Ethiopia, where he is working and trying to keep up with his toddler son, Hamish.
Giraffe, published this year, has already created an international sensation and is currently being released in its U.S. and French editions.
The Prague Post: Where did the idea for Giraffe first take root?
Jonathan Ledgard: I was a Central and Eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist at the time. One day, around 2001, I came across a snippet in one of the Czech papers. It was just a line in an interview with someone who later defected, to the effect that he had filmed the birth of a giraffe for Czechoslovak state television, but that the footage had disappeared after secret police had shot dead all the giraffes in that zoo. Could this be true? I was captivated. I spent a couple of years researching the book, then got sent to Afghanistan to look for Osama bin Laden, which is where I started to write it.
The research was a kind of three-dimensional journalism: I wanted the facts, but I also wanted the feelings. The feelings were more important. I managed to track down many of those involved. I interviewed zookeepers, veterinarians, retired secret police officers, butchers, former dissidents, biochemical warfare specialists and others. The highlight came right at the end when, quite by chance, I met with the hunter who was brought in by the secret police to shoot the giraffes.
We spent a day in his cabin in the mountains talking through what happened. He had never spoken about it before. He still had nightmares about it. I asked him, for example, what kind of rifle strap he had, how he wore it, how the moonlight played on the corrugated iron roof of the giraffe house, and what was the exact sound of the body of a giraffe hitting concrete.
He answered everything, thoughtfully, and although he did not wish to be identified, he spoke with a great sense of relief, as if he had been waiting to unburden himself. We walked away from his hut. It was summer, the grass in the meadows was high, all the snow melted, even in the shadows, and I felt moved almost to tears because I knew that I had finally got under the skin of that one single suffering.
TPP: Is the phrase ‘communist moment’ something commonly used, or did you coin it for Giraffe? If so, why do you think it works?
JL: It’s a phrase I coined. I’m interested in time and space. The ČSSR in 1975 was a communist moment. I was trying to get at the brevity of communism and yet how it seemed, in 1975, that it would go on for a long, long time.
TPP: There’s a lot of melancholy and resignation in your main character, Emil, the haemodynamicist, that is, as you describe, someone who specializes in blood flow in vertical creatures like giraffes and man. Was that a function of the time or is that something still in the atmosphere of Prague?
JL: Both, I think. In writing terms, there’s a deliberate flatness about Emil. You can’t really say if he’s good or bad, successful or failing: He’s compromised and he’s haunted — just like Prague.
TPP: What’s your writing routine? Walks, gallons of coffee, must put it on paper by hand first, can only write standing in a closet, etc.? How many hours a day can you go on this stuff (not counting your journalism, just the book work)?
JL: There’s the seed, then the germination of the seed, then the hard research, and finally the writing itself. I tend to write on the move. I travel everywhere with two notebooks. One is green, the other is blue. The green is for reporting, the blue is for writing. I took some months out at the end of Giraffe to write, at the rate of 10 to 12 hours a day, for six days a week, with occasional breaks for tennis and fishing. It’s pretty antisocial, but that’s the way I do it.
TPP: What substories on giraffes and communist animal husbandry had to be left out (perhaps for length or relevance)?
JL: For instance, how British spies went undercover as salesmen of milking machinery to Czechoslovak collective farms?
TPP: You seem equally fascinated by science and myth. Is there some relation between the two? Perhaps in the questing?
JL: Truth is indivisible. If there are angels, powers, principalities, then they are also subject to science, a certain biology; if there are not, then the absence is a mystery every bit as tantalizing.
TPP: You shift point of view often in Giraffe, from Emil, the scientist, to Amina, a village sleepwalker, and Jiří, the sharpshooter — you even get inside the head of Sněhurka, a giraffe. How did you go about that?
JL: I try to visit the local zoo wherever I travel. I am drawn to the otherness of animals in those places. Most of the zoos are dire, a few are excellent; I wrote several pieces for The Economist in front of the polar bears at Prague Zoo. I tend to dwell on just one or two beasts on a visit (most often polar bears). It’s the opposite of studying a painting or a sculpture, in that the longer you regard a beast, the more removed from your understanding it becomes.
I spent days staring up at giraffes. I wanted to find out the similarities between them and us. At the same time, I wanted to be true to their unknowability. Sněhurka is anthropomorphic, but she’s at the far end of anthropomorphism from Mickey Mouse. What I’ve written of her is drawn from observations, from talking to giraffe keepers, and from reading the zoological literature.
TPP: Sleepwalking emerges as a theme in the story, connecting all of the characters. Giraffes sleep standing up; there’s Amina, and, of course Czechs under Normalization. How did this motif emerge?
JL: I interviewed Václav Havel. He spoke of himself as being a character in a fairy tale who had broken through a wall into a world where anything was possible, even a playwright becoming president. He and other former dissidents sometimes described communist Czechoslovakia as a nation asleep. I developed that. It wasn’t just a nation asleep, it was a nation of sleepwalkers.