The curious incident of the giraffes in the night

zirafy2.jpg

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Czech town of Dvur Kralove occupied an important and prestigious position. The town formed part of the Czech queen's dowry, as its name, which roughly translates as 'Queen's settlement', would suggest. With the disappearance of a Czech royal family, however, things went a bit quiet for Dvur Kralove. In modern times, the town has been most famous for its Christmas-decoration factory, and its zoo. But Dvur Kralove has also played host to one of the stranger and more gruesome episodes of modern Czech history - though not that many people know about it. Author and journalist J.M. Ledgard explains:

"It's a true story, which was never written about. In fact, technically it is still a state secret in the Czech Republic, even today. But the true story is that a guy called Josef Vagner, who was a Communist functionary, who ran the zoo at Dvur Kralove, he assembled the largest herd of giraffes ever assembled in captivity, before or since. He brought them to the former Czechoslovakia, over a period of 3 or 4 years, from Kenya and Tanzania, and he wanted to create a new subspecies of giraffe - a communist, socialist giraffe. And then, on the eve of Mayday, Carodejnice, 1975, the secret police closed down the town of Dvur Kralove, they obviously closed down the zoo, and they shot dead all of these giraffes, and then they covered it up."

J.M Ledgard is a reporter for the Economist magazine. While he was posted in Prague in the late 1990s he came across the story of the giraffe massacre in Dvur Kralove, and subsequently wrote a book about it. Here is an excerpt from his novel "Giraffe", in which Amina, a resident of Dvur Kralove, sets eyes on the creatures for the first time:

Four giraffes blink and gather in the storm light. The sky pours wet down their necks. Without thinking, I run out behind the lorry. I stare up at the giraffes. I am captivated by them. Looking at them I feel awakened. They are as slender as I am, with sensitivity of expression. They are also of an incorrect density, reached up, as on tiptoe, off the face of the world, aimed for that place I should like to be. I see their necks and chests, but not their bodies. I run a little further behind the lorry. The giraffes move towards me. They see me. They lean down. I wish to jump up and touch them, but they are gathering speed away from me. Lightening forks. I see the giraffes in silver, as nacreous jigsaw puzzles that are in no need of solution.

While researching his book, J.M Ledgard had to sift his way through dozens of conspiracy theories which had sprung up around the giraffe-slaughter:

Josef Vagner, photo: CTK
"The conspiracies range from there being a deal for selling Czechoslovak arms, particularly to Somali and Ethiopian rebel groups, in exchange for giraffes. That the giraffes, that one of them had microfilm - microfiche - stitched into its underbelly. Another theory that was put about by Mr. Vagner himself was that he was a victim of jealous apparatchiks, who were jealous of his ability to travel, and jealous of his success - that they wanted to, as he put it, 'bring him to his knees'. And then of course, the other theory is that the giraffes had a very virulent disease, a very rare, African disease, which, if it had got out, would have wrecked the collective farming business in the CSSR, in Poland, in Eastern Germany. After doing all of that research, this is the theory that I favour."

J.M Ledgard now lives in Nairobi, but I caught up with him on a recent visit back to Prague. I asked him why he decided to write a book about the topic:

"Well, I should come clean and say that I had a serious fetish for zoos before I came across this story. And, as a foreign correspondent, I have traveled to lots of countries and the only thing I do religiously in these countries is buy honey, and visit the zoo. So I have been to lots of zoos - some truly, truly awful zoos - Tirana Zoo, in Albania, which had the chain-smoking chimpanzee, the Moldovan National Zoo, which had a three-legged Shetland pony, I kid you not."

"But we're very lucky here in Prague to have undoubtedly, unquestionably the best zoo in the former communist world. I'm deeply ambivalent about zoos. I'm as repulsed by them as I am fascinated in them. I used to go to these zoos, and I never was like, when you were a kid - you had to traipse around the whole zoo. I would always head for one or two, never more than two animals. And I would just sit there for an hour, looking at that one animal."

"My favourite animal was the polar bear, so I wrote a lot of my great political analysis of Central Europe sitting in front of the polar bears at Prague Zoo."

The events which provide the plot for "Giraffe" are still shrouded in secrecy, and, as J.M Ledgard explains, the period which the novel spans is made more mysterious still by the fact that it is often blacked-out of Czech history:

"As I got into this true story I was completely consumed and fascinated by the 1970s in Czechoslovakia, which is a time which has been pared out of history. If you talk to older Czechs, they will have very vivid memories of '65 to '69. If you talk to them about '72 to '76, their public memories, you know, they're gone. Obviously, if you talk about their private memories, when they got married, had a kid, fell in love, fell out of love or whatever, those memories are very clear. But the public memory of what happened that Mayday, it's gone. So I was really fascinated in this combination of this truly bizarre story, and a truly bizarre time."

"Giraffe" presents 1970s Czechoslovakia as an arthritic, ageing country, in which the inhabitants are caged like animals. Even Czech fairytale characters, like the water-sprite or vodnik, are trapped:

The vodnik looks after a stretch of a river or stream. He lives among eels in the back walls of deep pools where trout circle... It is so striking, so very Czechoslovakian, that the vodnik belongs to a single stretch of river, between a linden tree and a bend, or between a weir and a certain copse of crab apple trees. He is not like the mermaids the East German sailors spoke of, who sink freely down from a cove and sing, with plucking of throat hairs, to whales in the faraway deep... The vodnik has been too long exiled in our landlocked Czechoslovakia to move any more in [a] sober and althetic way... He has grown thin and is seen most often in the local hospoda, or pub, where he fancies his green skin is disguised in the weak electric light of the Communist moment.

The book is not very flattering about the Czechoslovakia of the time, and lots of Czechs see the 1970s as something of a murky period in their history. So what sort of success is the book having amongst Czechs, now that it has been translated?

"I'm actually really impressed and feel really positive about the response that I have got. People are really quite interested in this 1970s period, because so few Czechs have examined it, and so few Czechs know that this incident happened. I'm not saying that this is the biggest crime of communism, but it is certainly one of the weirdest, and I think there is a fascination there. And the book was very beautifully translated into Czech."

"Giraffe" received glowing reviews when it was published in English a year ago, and early signs point to the same thing happening with the Czech translation of the book.