The novels of J. M. Ledgard are, as he says in an interview with Philip Gourevitch, “an attempt at what I would call planetary writing.” In the shadow of “global novels” that only hint at an astonishingly interconnected world, it comes as a pleasant surprise to see that word: planetary. It seems scientific, but not clinical. Certainly not milquetoast nature writing: “it’s more political, more discarnate.” More conscious, perhaps, of the hundreds of forces that drive the visible world.
It is the planet we live on, more than any human consciousness or ambition, that anchors the two slim novels of J. M. Ledgard—Giraffe, which was acclaimed upon its 2006 publication, and Submergence, which despite its greater stature has been slower in finding an Anglophone audience since its British publication in 2011. Ledgard, who was born on the chilly Shetland Islands, has spent much of his working life writing for The Economist and has been stationed thousands of miles away as a foreign correspondent in western America, central Europe, central Asia, and eastern Africa. It comes as no surprise, then, that Giraffe and Submergence owe their prose to the direct (and at times detail-dense) style of magazine reportage, nor that they’re set in various corners of the world—Kenya, France, the Czech Republic, Somalia. These books are every bit as cosmopolitan as their author.
The greater surprise, rather, is in these two books’ composition. In attempting to tell a story, many novelists simply follow a single character, or an interconnected group of characters, chronologically through a specific time and place. Giraffe, however, splits its narrative of bringing a herd of giraffes from eastern Africa to landlocked Czechoslovakia—and their eventual, stomach-churning massacre—among six narrators across a three-and-a-half–year span, with a seventh narrator providing an epilogue twenty-eight years after the novel’s beginning. Submergence eschews even this idea of chronology, adopting a chiasmic structure by tracking the perpendicular lives of a male British spy captured by jihadists and a female marine biologist both before and after the short time of their meeting one Christmas on France’s Atlantic coast.
This choice to refract a story through different narrators and mindsets almost feels like an recompense on Ledgard’s part for a journalist’s job. A carefully researched magazine piece gives its readers a single, focused perspective on a particular topic; quotations and images are cherry-picked to advance the journalist’s argument. In contrast, by letting these characters speak for themselves, Ledgard returns narrative agency to the narrative’s agents.
Emil, the dominant narrator of Giraffe, is a Czech hemodynamicist studying the flow of blood in giraffes, whose hearts have to pump blood many feet against gravity to their brains. Because he lives in what the novel’s characters refer to as “the Communist moment,” he is tasked with overseeing the giraffe’s transport, and with ensuring that all matters relating to these animals proceed according to his government’s mandates. Other chapters demonstrate Ledgard’s polyphonic range, from the emotional fervor of an often-sleepwalking woman named Amina to the occasionally awkward proclamations of one of the eponymous giraffes.
In the final third of the book, especially, this breadth of voices achieves a heart-stopping brilliance. Three more narrators join this chorus, and time and space condense abruptly to three days deep in the heart of Communist Czechoslovakia. And only then do we understand what the novel has been building up to: a painstaking rendering of a heretofore unexplained massacre of the forty-nine Czechoslovakia-imported giraffes. “This is a matter of national security,” Emil finds himself forced to tell the virologist who has diagnosed the giraffes’ sickness. Because this non-native outbreak risks spreading to native species and across political borders, “you will cover up everything, write down nothing . . . This is from the Politburo.”
Ledgard rejects this Politburo mandate to write down nothing. And so I read the final seventy-odd pages with my hand over my mouth, unable to look away or stop turning the pages as this state-mandated slaughter was organized and carried out and retold from each individual viewpoint: the sharpshooter given an elephant gun because giraffes are monumentally larger than deer; the hemodynamicist running from corpse to corpse to take blood samples for scientific study, labeling each one with the names of the giraffes he has come to know; the slaughterhouse man ordered to help butcher the animals’ remains for ease in transport out of Czechoslovakia. The tension of narrative propulsion redeems Ledgard’s stylistic choices, and sheds light on a mystery that would have otherwise disappeared into historical obscurity.
Ledgard’s choice to transform his investigation into a full-fleshed novel grants him the license to fill in the gaps that journalistic scruples might not have permitted him. If there are particular voices that do not quite ring true, or occasional paragraphs overfull of details obviously more interesting to Ledgard himself than to his narrators, they are quickly forgotten. Giraffe is a thing of beauty and complexity—one that we constantly expect, like its eponymous animal, to stumble, and one that amazes us when it gracefully draws itself up to its full height.
If Giraffe is a novel that arose out of journalistic curiosity, then J. M. Ledgard’s next and latest novel, Submergence, is one that arose out of personal passion. Every variation of Ledgard’s biography highlights his birth on Britain’s Shetland Islands, where the sea is constantly visible. As such, Submergence is anchored in, for lack of a more specific descriptor, the ocean. That which we do not know well becomes simplified in our mind: “Africa” becomes a homogeneous territory, “germs” become an undifferentiated kingdom of organisms. Similarly, the ocean and its creatures have been glossed over enough to be, for us, a perpetual source of wonder:
“We know now that the slime that covered the inside of the [nineteenth-century ship Challenger’s] dredge each time it was brought up was not the unexceptional ooze the ship’s scientists believed it to be. Not whale snot, either. It was all that remained of the most exquisite forms of millions of sea squirts, salp, and jellies, whose diaphanous musculature—more remarkable than any alien species yet conceived—had lost its form in air.”
When seventy-one percent of the earth’s surface is covered by water, it seems astonishing that ninety-five percent of this water remains unexplored—and that few of us have learned to demarcate this aqueous mass beyond the names of the seven seas.
“Which ocean do you like best?” the British spy (under cover of being a water resources expert) James More asks his unexpected love interest at a French seaside hotel around Christmastime. Danielle “Danny” Flinders replies:
“‘It has to be that one—the Atlantic.’
‘Scientifically, or otherwise?’
‘Otherwise, I suppose,’ he said cautiously . . .
‘Well, the Atlantic links the halves of the Western world. It is the ocean of the slave trade, also of the steamship. The sea of constant doom . . . it’s a cold and representative body of water, dropping down to submarine mountain ranges.’
‘An average depth of 3,600 meters.’”
In Submergence, J. M. Ledgard succeeds in solving many of the problems in his earlier work. Writing in a third-person voice, he interweaves his estimable store of trivia and aperçus into authorial asides and snippets of conversation between two people who actually would discuss such intricacies of the physical world with each other.
“It could have been 600 pages,” Ledgard said in an interview with Zingmagazine, but “I think very carefully about what I put in and especially what I take out.” The result is a book that feels closer to poetry than realist fiction. Section by short section, the book’s attention drifts gently but deliberately from David Attenborough–like descriptions of the world and its workings to the dark Somali cell in which James More has been locked up by Somali jihadists, and to the particulars of Danny Flinders’s marine career. Sometimes this even happens in a single sentence: “When there was no moon he was sunk in the blackness Danny saw when she explored the abyssal deep . . .”
Submergence is a novel about science, which means that the nonhuman biosphere is constantly at the periphery of the narrative’s consciousness. Yet Ledgard, being a planetary writer, underscores in both his books how a scientist’s work is always eclipsed by industrial and political concerns. Early in Giraffe, a Czech shipping company official tells Emil the hemodynamicist: “You’ll travel to Hamburg, keep an eye on things, listen out for what concerns us . . . Write some scientific paper from this trip. Indulge yourself. Yes?” Similarly, Danny explains to James More that industries “want the manganese nodules, gold, and fuels that are in the deep, but it’s too expensive to get at now. There’s still some undisturbed time . . .” She prepares for a deep-sea descent in a submersible to look out on a world that remains mysterious and, for now, safe from human depredations.
J. M. Ledgard’s ambition to write a book that is “planetary” means dwarfing these scientific and political and stylistic forces within global scales. “According to the evidence, genetic and archaeological . . . every non-African in the world is descended from a band of thirty or so humans who made it across the Gate of Tears some sixty thousand years ago,” Danny tells James. “This explains the genetic diversity in Africa, where a villager may be farther removed from his neighbor than you are from a Polynesian.” In light of such a casually stated fact, it is hard not to feel small, to wonder what use there may be in existing as an individual.
It is perhaps for this reason that Ledgard’s writing is primarily filtered through the human psyche. The individual sections of Submergence, when not given over to an omniscient authorial narrator, closely track James and Danny’s divergent lives, and enter their thoughts and perceptions of the surrounding world. Ledgard has created lives and careers for them germane to his own research interests, and the distance between the two of them—“She could not simplify the math for him. He was legally bound to hide behind a false identity”—underscore the even greater distance between their worldviews and the author’s wide-ranging Weltanschauung. One gap accentuates another; the increasing scale of data becomes staggering. Every page is loaded with more and more bits of information.
Even the smallest details apparently matter. Giraffe’s Emil takes pains to inform us that his name was taken from Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive, a book that was nearly burned by the Nazis; the giraffe’s name is Sněhurka, which we are told again and again means Snow White; James More in Submergence is a direct descendant of Sir Thomas More, the author of Utopia; and Ledgard even acknowledged to Philip Gourevitch this propensity: “not to hammer it, but [Danny’s] name, Flinders, means shatters, and there was some sense for me of her shattering the truth.” Perhaps this extraordinary degree of signification can be traced to Ledgard not wanting any element of his writing to be lost on readers who might learn that bit more.
Indeed, J. M. Ledgard demonstrates his novelistic aspirations by channeling his journalistic findings through techniques drawn from fiction, not from reportage. Even his own name illustrates this. At The Economist, he is known as Jonathan Ledgard. By publishing under his first two initials, he aligns himself with two men—J. M. Barrie (referenced in Submergence) and J. M. Coetzee (referenced by Ledgard’s other reviewers)—whose reputations have been established by their fictions. Is this conscious decision to rebrand himself, to imply that he is comparable to those two, entirely justifiable?
One is inclined to say yes. J. M. Ledgard’s aims inform and transform his writing; the result feels unlike any other book in recent memory. Even the most well-written nonfiction tomes suffer from the constraint of facts—a biographer cannot know what her subject was really thinking, for example—and the most perceptive works of fiction derive their brilliance from the narrowness of their foci. Especially in Submergence, Ledgard marries the wonder of fact with the beauty of fiction; the result is a portrait of individual consciousness and of this strange, barely understood planet. His novels are at once arresting and haunting. Ledgard declares in the final pages of Submergence that “Poetry speaks of the ocean as a tomb, but science reckons it to be a womb.” His quest to awaken us to the poetry of science, of knowledge, is a breathtaking, immensely humbling success.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in the Yale Daily News Magazine, Best European Fiction, and The White Review. He lives in New York.
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