The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky
Frau Inge Lohmark is a teacher of biology to teenagers. She is defiantly old school, teaching from the front, chalk and talk – a bit of a dinosaur in the world of education some might say – at risk of dying out. A Darwin devotee, Frau Lohmark does have a real passion for her subject, but not so much her pupils…
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. Who fed on the teaching body, on its authority and its fear, doing harm to its responsibility. They constantly ambushed one. With nonsensical questions, meagre suggestions and distasteful familiarities. The purest vampirism.
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.
You’d think that Frau Lohmark would be a spinster, a tweedy and dessicated older woman with steely hair in a bun, so bitter is she. Actually we don’t find out much about her appearance at all, but we do discover that she is married to Wolfgang, who breeds ostriches for the tables of posh restaurants in Berlin. She has a daughter, Claudia, who escaped to the USA as soon as she could from the former East Germany; Frau Lohmark barely thinks of Claudia these days. She is used to staying put, she’ll last it out at the Gymnasium (German equivalent of our academies) won’t she? She has to – her family is effectively dysfunctional – she can’t contemplate a life with Wolfgang and the ostriches…
At intervals throughout the book are exquisite illustrations of flora and fauna from the tree of life including Frau Lohmark’s beloved jellyfish. Jellyfish, being very ancient, evolved from the earliest true animals (eumetazoa) in the Cambrian era by the way.
There are no credits anywhere for the drawings, but knowing that the author trained as an art historian, graphic designer and typographer and illustrated her previous book Atlas of Remote Islands, it’s fair to assume they are her work.
The whole text is something of a love story to evolution and genetics. Theories are applied to Frau Lohmark’s classroom – who are the ‘fittest’ pupils? Who will survive, and thrive on the rigours of the genetics course, stretching higher to reach the next levels of knowledge as the giraffe did for leaves? I enjoyed these analogies very much. There was a nice one comparing the new intake of pupils each year and having to start again with deciduous trees loosing their leaves followed by new growth.
This novel will clearly not be to everyone’s taste, you need an appreciation of evolution and genetics to get the most from it. There are many scientific terms used and Shaun Whiteside’s translation from the German is technically accurate and holds no prisoners.
The book is divided into three parts. ‘Ecosystems’, the first part in which we meet Frau Lohmark and discover her rather strong beliefs was fascinating. The final part, ‘Evolution Theory’ was equally so, as we discover Frau Lohmark’s future and how it evolved, what makes her tick. Unfortunately the middle, longest, section entitled ‘Genetic Processes’ rather took its time – like natural selection – and didn’t drive the story on very efficiently, and I did get slightly bored until it picked up again.
This is an structurally ambitious novel that doesn’t quite pull it off, but one that I appreciated and found fascinating in parts. (7.5/10)
See also Jackie’s review at Farm Lane Books
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The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky. Pub March 2014 by Bloomsbury, 244 pages, hardback.