The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

We are inside the head of an aging school teacher of biology. In a theoretical way, if asked, we know that life is about natural selection, evolution, the struggle to survive. But for Inge Lohmark it is far more than a theoretical by-the-way. It is life, it really is for her. Every thought, every observation, every relationship, every mouth of food, every moment of teaching, every coffee break, nothing exists without this conscious understanding of what is happening.

She sees teaching as something to survive in a Darwinian way. She is a disappointed person, but in a matter-of-fact way. Her take on her classes, on the behaviour of teenagers, on the Eastern German education system is hilarious in a bitter, dry sort of way.

I can’t resist giving a couple of examples: if nothing else they will serve to reassure the reader that this book works in translation.

Here she is in front of her class.

Bull by the horns.

‘There are cases when patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia can’t remember the names of their children or their partners, but they can remember their biology teacher’s.’ Bad experiences sometimes left more of a mark than good ones.

‘A birth or a marriage may be an important event, but it does not secure a place in the memory.’ The brain, a sieve.

‘Never forget: nothing is certain. What’s certain is nothing.’

Now she’d even started tapping herself on the head with her forefinger.

The class looked on in dismay.

Back to the book.

‘There are about two million species in the world. And if environmental conditions change, they are endangered.’

Total lack of interest.

‘Can you think of any species that have died out already?’

A handful of outstretched little arms.

‘I mean – apart from dinosaurs.’

All the hands came down straight away. The nursery disease. The couldn’t ell a blackbird from a starling, but they could rattle off the taxonomy of extinct large lizards. Sketch a brachiosaurus out of their heads. Early enthusiasm for the morbid. Soon they’ll be playing with thoughts of suicide and haunting cemeteries at night. Flirting with the beyond. More death trend than death drive.

Later on she finds herself on the school bus to get to and fro because her car’s broken down. It’s a hilarious description of how the teenagers arrange themselves, somewhat put out, of course, by her presence. She sits in the second to last seat. Behind her are Jennifer and Kevin, an item.

The bus stopped again. The latest entry was Saskia. As always she went straight to the back. Bent down to Jennifer. Three kisses on the cheek, both otherwise not a word. Her hair like a curtain. Rattling bracelets. A hand stretched out towards Kevin. Then she threw herself into the seat, put on her enormous headphones and turned the volume up a few more decibels. Sooner deaf than lonely. She’d briefly set her cap at Paul, to outrun Jennifer. But then the alternation between devotion and rejection became too much of a strain. Competition lost. Connection broken.

Silence on the back seat. Jennifer and Kevin were bored.

‘Do you love me?’ Jennifer’s childish voice.

‘Of course.’ How grown up he sounded.

‘Say my mobile number. You’ve got to know it by heart.’ Feminine logic.

‘Why? I’ve got it stored.’

‘Com on, let’s hear it.’

‘Zero…one…erm…seven…’

‘Go on.’

He didn’t get any further. She helped him with the gaps. Then she probably let him kiss her. At any rate there was nothing more to be heard. But what did they have to talk about? There was nothing to say.

If you don’t like these extracts, you won’t like the book, it’s all like that. You are in Inge’s head and it’s a sad, dry, evocative, eye-opening way of looking at the world. Whole-heartedly recommend it.

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