Longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, ‘The Giraffe’s Neck’ by Judith Schalansky and translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside tells the story of Inge Lohmark, a biology teacher approaching the end of her career at a high school in a former East German country backwater. She has a firm belief in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution yet, somewhat ironically, she is highly resistant to adapting to change in her own life.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Inge is a difficult character to love. Even for those who enjoy unlikeable characters, she is pretty extreme. While her total disdain and cynicism towards her adolescent pupils is often very amusing, Inge displays a profound lack of empathy towards other people and her behaviour is borderline psychopathic at times. However, there are also some glimpses of Inge’s softer side when she talks about her family life. She inadvertently reveals a fair amount of disappointment and sadness, particularly concerning the absence of her daughter Claudia who has been living in California for twelve years.
Inge draws analogies between Darwin’s theory of evolution and different aspects of school life. Just as competitive pressure forced giraffes to evolve with longer necks to help them reach food at the top of trees, Inge’s refusal to help a pupil who is being bullied reflects her belief that the school playground is purely an environment which tests the survival of the fittest. Yet she seems relatively unconcerned that her old-fashioned style of teaching is in danger of extinction.
Inge views her pupils in the same way she examines biological specimens as demonstrated in a typical description of one of her pupils (p.14): “Brown ponytail, boring face. Over-ambitious. Joyless and industrious as an ant. Desperately keen to read out papers. Class representative from birth. Wearing.” Whiteside’s translation is very impressive with much of the short and spare prose littered with complex scientific terms. Overall, the writing seemed much richer compared to ‘The Investigation‘ by Jung-Myung Lee which has also been longlisted for the Prize.
I’m not sure if ‘The Giraffe’s Neck’ will have particularly wide appeal – there isn’t much in the way of character development or a conventional plot to speak of – but I would describe it as pleasingly odd. The satire is darker, more complex and ultimately more rewarding than that of ‘Look Who’s Back’ by Timur Vermes, one of the other German novels longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I much prefer ‘The Giraffe’s Neck’ overall but I have a few more books to read before I can decide whether it deserves to appear on the shortlist…