Schalansky's novel looks at the reunification in Germany through the brilliant yet belligerent eyes of a teacher stuck in an East German province during the early years of reunification.
The cover, the thickness of the paper, the color shades — for Judith Schalansky, these details elevate the story told between two book covers into a special work by creating a unique universe in harmony with the written content.
In between the novel's coarse linen cover, the text of The Giraffe's Neck is rugged and initially dismissive — just like the protagonist herself. The biology teacher Inge Lohmark is nearing the end of her career at a school in the back blocks of Mecklenburg that will soon be closed for lack of students.
Reunification has left the East behind and there has been an exodus from an area that has lost the battle underlining Darwinian biology. Lohmark hates the school anyway — and her own life.
Law of the jungle
The teacher's steadfast belief in the idea of natural selection is born out in one monologue about the students in her class.
"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. It was advisable to confront them with the truth as early as possible."
But Lohmark's biological truths are becoming obsolete, just like her political ones. The teacher is a former Stasi informer whose mantra about the survival of the fittest is falling apart in the same way as the communist regime that supported her. Her husband had a state job inseminating cattle but is now trying to breed ostriches; her daughter has moved away to America and does not want to have children. The law of nature is losing.
Schalansky creates the psychological profile of a morally questionable woman without trying to justify her. Allowing the human spirit to rise up amid societal atrophy is what makes her novel so special.
As one reviewer wrote: "Judith Schalansky presents us with an inverted Bildungsroman, a little anti-Darwinian manifesto. She handles urgent, weighty topics with a singular elegance and lightness of touch: the aging population, climate change, rural depopulation, and the failure of the knowledge society."
The writer is herself the child of two teachers and grew up in East Germany near Greifswald. She escaped the confines of the GDR with the help of books. Today, she creates her own bibliophile works of art down to the last detail — from research to printing. The approach has brought her a lot of success.
Schalansky's books are translated into more than 20 languages, win numerous design awards, and are consistently reprinted. In 2009, for example, she won numerous awards for Atlas of the Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will, her 700-page tome inspired by her wanderlust and love for typography. The 50 maps and accompanying impressionistic texts confirm Judith Schalansky's love for literary innovation and detail.
Judith Schalansky: The Giraffe's Neck, Bloomsbury, (German title: Der Hals der Giraffe, 2011). English translation: Shaun Whiteside.
Judith Schalansky, born in 1980, studied art history and communications design, taught typography at the University of Applied Sciences Potsdam, and today works as a freelance writer and book designer in Berlin. Atlas of the Remote Islands (2009) won the German Design Award in 2011. The Giraffe's Neck was voted Most Beautiful German Book in 2012.