It’s time for our third IFFP-related stop in Germany, and this time we’re taking the scenic route. We’re paying a brief visit to a town somewhere in the former GDR, where we’ll make the acquaintance of a teacher, one you’ll be very glad you never had as a youngster. Pay attention at the back, there – I’ll be testing you on this later…
The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky – Bloomsbury (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
What’s it all about?
Inge Lohmark is a biology teacher, and a woman who really believes in natural selection. It’s the start of the school year, and as she casts her eye over the specimens she’s been allotted this time around, she soon classifies them, distinguishing between the possibles and the lost causes. While Inge is an effective teacher, of both biology and physical education, hers are not classes anyone looks forward to.
However, the times are changing. The Charles Darwin Grammar School (seriously…) has been bleeding students for quite some time, and the threat of closure is ever-present. As the teachers reluctantly begin to consider alternatives, the zealous headmaster hints to Inge that she should work on her classroom manner – and perhaps start looking for other jobs too. For a woman like Inge, though, change is not really an option, and so the biology teacher finds herself facing an uncertain future, one in which she is not among those fittest that always manage to survive…
This one is a book I’d heard mentioned many times as Schalansky is an up-and-coming writer on the German literary scene. It’s been promoted in various places (such as New Books in German), and it’s definitely got something. The Giraffe’s Neck is single-minded in its focus on its main character, creating a slightly claustrophobic story where we only have the teacher’s words to tell us what’s going on.
Inge is an excellent creation, a woman who is nasty without really wanting to be. In this, she’s the epitome of the East German teacher, living by the maxim ‘be cruel to be kind’:
“Her colleagues simply didn’t understand that they were just damaging their own health by showing any interest in their pupils. After all, they were nothing but bloodsuckers who drained you of all your vital energy.”
p.3 (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Not for Inge the joys of developing a close relationship with her class – she’s most certainly not the touchy-feely type.
However, as the story develops, we sense there’s more to her than her iron classroom discipline. There are hints that she’s entering menopause and the issue of her distant relationship with her partner (an odd, absent type, obsessed by ostriches…), not to mention the growing realisation that she may be over the hill pedagogically. The biggest problem, though, is her daughter Claudia over in the USA. We sense that there’s a reason Lohmark junior is living thousands of miles away from home…
The Giraffe’s Neck, while centred on Inge, is also a book which reflects the environment it’s set in. It takes place in the East, in a small town of fading glories. The area is dying, with young people moving away as soon as possible, leaving a hollow shell behind:
“Besides, the city, or what was left of it, was slipping into its midday sleep, quiet and unreal, like everything abandoned by human beings. People used to warn of the danger of overpopulation. Since then there must have been a few billion more on the planet. No sign of that here, though.” (p.56)
While some of the older folk (like one of Inge’s colleagues) still believe in the virtues of communism, it’s a lost cause, and the town (and many of the people) have found themselves on the wrong side of history. It remains to be seen whether Inge can extract herself from her past before it’s too late.
Schalansky’s book features yet another excellent translation, this time by Shaun Whiteside (the one real highlight of this year’s IFFP is that there have been many good translations – which hasn’t always been the case in the past). It has a very tightly controlled style and voice, giving Inge a clear, defined personality, owing in part to the short, spiky sentences and fragments Schalansky and Whiteside have chosen to use. Having said that, these fragments won’t be to everyone’s taste – I can imagine some readers getting tired of the style, especially when little is happening in the plot…
On the whole, though, The Giraffe’s Neck is an intriguing read, and the story is all pulled together nicely in the final few pages. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I say that there’s no happy ending here – this is a story with a rather pessimistic view of the world:
“We dragged the past around with us. It made us what we were, and we had to deal with it. Life wasn’t a struggle, it was a burden, you had to bear it. As best you could. A task to perform from the first drawn breath. As a human being you were always at work. You never died of an illness, only ever of the past. A past that had not prepared us for this present” (p.188)
Sadly, Inge can’t get over her past – she’s doomed to, if not extinction, then an ignominious retirement…
Did it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I don’t think so, not quite. There’s a lot to like here, but I wouldn’t put it in my top six. For one thing, I’m not a huge fan of short, fragmented sentences, which makes this unlikely to appeal overly. There’s also a bit of a lull in the second half, which doesn’t really pick up again until the last few pages. Definitely an interesting book, but not one of the best ones this year.
Why didn’t it make the shortlist?
Schalansky v Erpenbeck = no contest here, at least for these two books. Schalansky v Kehlmann, though…
Bidding Germany (temporarily) farewell again, we find ourselves heading east – or is it west? A country that seems familiar, yet strangely odd – a voyage through books and dreams. Strap yourselves in – this will be no ordinary journey…