Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Giraffe's Neck by Judith Schalansky, translated by Shaun Whiteside

The Giraffe's Neck
Judith Schalansky
Translated by Shaun Whiteside (from German)
2014 Bloomsbury
211 pages, satire, science

In this darkly humorous book, an old-school (East German) biology teacher analyzes everything in terms of Darwin's theory of evolution. Despite the diminishing number of students and the new educational plans, she remains stolidly in her lifelong habits of inducing fear and respect in class.

How will Frau Lomark survive in a changing world?

This book is described as a Bildungsroman, a novel dealing with character formation, formal education, or a coming-of-age story. (Thanks to Stu at Winstonsdad's blog for pointing out the importance of this term in his review of The Ravens.) However, I have some doubts about the applicability of that term to this story.

Frau Lomark's Character Formation

It seems to me that Frau Lomark's character demonstrates stagnation, rather than change. From the beginning to the end of the novel (i.e. from the beginning to end of the school year), she continues to regard the students in her class as biological specimens. She notices when her students bully another girl, and does not do anything about it. It's survival of the fittest, the world is hard and coddling children is just delaying the inevitable. (More about this in a moment.) 

The only possible character development that I noticed was that Frau Lomark decided randomly to pick up one of her students from home when the school bus broke down. This seems to have been a spur-of-the-moment act and, while it shows that Frau Lomark is capable of being kind, nothing more comes of it. In fact, it seems that her character will develop more after she is fired at the end of the novel, but that is not shown at all. 

In terms of being a story about education, the only thing this book demonstrates is how obsessed Frau Lomark is with biology. Again, she has a very stagnant view of it: she considers scientific ideas to be facts that are true under any regime. One of the most interesting parts of the book is a conversation with some other teachers about the differences between education in East Germany and reunited Germany. Because scientific laws do not vary based on the country, Frau Lomark does not see much difference after the political change. 

Social Darwinism

The most disturbing part of this story is Frau Lomark's obsession with biology and Darwin's theory of evolution as a way to explain social constructions. This is a social theory known as Social Darwinism, which, as this article explains, does not actually have much to do with Darwin. Social Darwinism tries to apply the concept of "survival of the fittest" (the popular understanding of this phrase is a misnomer, actually. Darwin meant "fittest" as "the most adapted to its habitat and circumstances," not "fittest" as "most strong." But I digress.) to all social interactions. It therefore excuses all power, economic, gender, health, etc. inequalities as the natural order of things: only the strong survive. For this reason, it has been used to justify all sorts of human rights abuses, including the Nazi eugenics policies that led to the Holocaust. According to this understanding of society, those who cannot stand up for themselves because of structural power imbalances are considered to be naturally inferior to those in power and, therefore, disposable. 

Frau Lomark's acceptance of these views seems to be based on her worldview, which views biology as the one Truth in the universe. However, it is most disturbing to see these principles applied to the classroom, allowing students to terrorize others as a "weeding out" or "toughening up" process. She cannot allow herself to appear weak for the same reason. Although I am not sure, it seems that Schalansky may be making some sort of political statement about the Holocaust and its role in German history. 

As a novel

This book is darkly humorous, and Frau Lomark's science-terminology-filled commentary is amusing for the first 100 pages or so. The short, choppy sentences become very tiring after a while, as does Frau Lomark's emotionless character. When she espouses the same ideas at the end of the novel as she does at the beginning, it is obvious that she learned nothing during this school year, just like her students. 

This book is available on Amazon or wherever books are sold. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree that Inge's character is stagnant, rather than developing but I see that as part of the irony at play. She refuses or is incapable of adapting. I didn't read social Darwinism into this, I don't think she holds much hope for her species at all. The brief chink in her armour is her attraction to the one female student which I think almost bordered on sexual attraction. It certainly gave her pause (but only for a moment). I suspect this book would make a good choice for a book club - certainly good for some heated debate anyhow. :)