The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

The Giraffe's NeckLonglisted 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…


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16 responses to “The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

  1. Always interested to hear about “unlikeable” heroines and/or books. Not sure if I would read this one, but it is good to give a shout-out to something unconventional…


  2. I would not say I liked the character but I found her both funny and sadly tragic when we come to understand how deeply her misanthropy lies. She likely will never appreciate how she is the author of her own unhappiness. Of course I don’t think she is supposed to be realistic. The contrast of her bleakness with the gorgeous artwork is what lifts this book for me. Short list? I’m not sure but I sure am glad to have encountered this author who at only 35 will be worth watching.


  3. I won’t be reading the book, but I find the underlying premise fascinating; thanks for sharing your review with us.


  4. Fascinating review – the book sounds intriguing. Sounds as if it’s somewhat in the vein of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. I’ve seen the film of that – though I haven’t read the book; it’s pretty dark and it sounds like this is too!


  5. farmlanebooks

    I thought this book was a lot better than ‘Look Who’s Back’ or ‘The Investigation’ – it had such strong ideas and a higher quality of writing. I haven’t read many of the other longlistees so I look forward to finding out if any are better than this – i f so I’ll probably go out and buy them 🙂


    • I agree that Look Who’s Back and The Investigation are by far the weakest from the books I’ve read so far from the longlist. Hoping to have read the majority of the books by the time the shortlist comes out in 2 weeks time!


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  7. I also preferred this to Look Who’s Back. I thought it was excellent at what it does – the intertwining of Inge’s scientific knowledge with her philosophy of life – ultimately demonstrating that it is not enough. In this sense it is almost perfectly crafted, but is it ambitious enough? As roughghosts says, a writer to watch.


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  9. Pingback: Book Review – THE GIRAFFE’S NECK by Judith Schalansky

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