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J. M. Ledgard - The real subject of his book is scale: the vastness of time and space, and the impossibility of squaring either one with our own experience. “There were many things he had not properly imagined. Death was one, the ocean was other.”

Submergence by JM Ledgard

J. M. Ledgard, Submergence. Vintage, 2012.


“I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” the Welsh rebel Owen Glendower boasts in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. “Why, so can I, or so can any man,” replies his co-conspirator, Sir Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur. “But will they come when you do call for them?”
In his new book, Submergence, the Scottish writer J. M. Ledgard calls spirits from the vasty deep — the Hadal zone, to be precise, 20,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean. He calls them from the wadis and salt flats of the Somali desert; from the firelit intimacy of a hotel in winter on the coast of France; and from that deepest, vastiest place of all, the solitary confinement of consciousness. And they do come, all of them — forming, together, the best novel I’ve read so far this year.
The story itself is straightforward. On holiday in France, a man and a woman meet and fall in love. She is Danielle (Danny) Flinders, a biomathematician searching for microbial life in the least hospitable parts of the ocean. He is James More, a British spy posing as a water engineer. Sometime after their seaside idyll — which we only learn about in flashbacks — he is taken hostage by members of Al Qaeda in Somalia. As the book unfolds, Danny, unaware of James’s plight, sets off to explore the hydrothermal vents beneath the North Atlantic. James, meanwhile, is beaten, interrogated, and dragged by his captors from place to place: an improvised prison in Kismayo, a makeshift camp in the Somali badlands, a skiff on the Indian Ocean laden with weapons and the carcasses of sharks, a mangrove swamp where the jihadists hide out from American forces. 
As a plot unmoored from its prose, this could be a film treatment for the next Bond movie, or jacket copy for John le Carré. But Ledgard is up to something very different here. The real subject of his book is scale: the vastness of time and space, and the impossibility of squaring either one with our own experience. James works on the human scale: “He was concerned with alleys, beliefs, incendiary devices.” Danny works on the geologic one, “in a part of the Hadal deep whose unlit clock ticked at an incalculably slower speed.” You could put all of Great Britain above her head, Ledgard observes, and its highest peak would not break the water’s surface.
That’s an arresting image, but it is also, figuratively, the problem: What is over our heads is over our heads. As a species, we are terrible at grasping the trans-human scale, a failing that has dire practical consequences. (With its passages on overfishing, acidification, and climate change, Submergence is partly highbrow cli-fi, that emerging genre of ecological dystopia.) But it also provokes an existential paradox. We know that, in the scheme of things, we are insignificant, ephemeral, fated to die. Yet we go on brimming with our own centrality, unable to shake the sense of mattering. Like the real scale of the world, the real scale of the self eludes us. Ledgard, channeling James, puts it concisely: “There were many things he had not properly imagined. Death was one, the ocean was other.”                                 
Submergence, Ledgard’s second novel, came out in England in 2011. But it didn’t appear here until March, when it was published, to inexplicably minimal fanfare, by the small but excellent Coffee House Press. This is why writers have day jobs, and, since 1995, Ledgard has worked for The Economist, where he currently covers war and politics as the East Africa correspondent. 
That background serves him exceptionally well. For starters, he is wonderful with facts, which drift through the dark waters of this book like epistemological luminescence. We learn that the vertical migration of certain marine creatures is equivalent to birds flying from their nests into outer space. We learn about a species of squid whose two mismatched eyes require it to swim at a 45-degree angle to see out of both. We learn about Sumerian legends, Somali ecology, Finnish painters, the iconography of angels. 
And, of course, we learn about the terrorist network in Africa and the Middle East. Ledgard supplies credible details: a Muslim doctor who believes UNICEF is a “cover for the Crusaders,” a suicide bomber whose cell phone shows Ryan Giggs scoring a goal for Manchester United, young recruits “walking for days in jeans and sandals, shouldering their guns like skis.” But Ledgard also has a conscientious reporter’s respect for complexity. James is a sympathetic protagonist but not a hero, and he knows where he stands: neither wholly aligned with nor wholly innocent of England’s history in Africa. 
Likewise, the kidnappers do terrible things, but Ledgard neither dehumanizes nor excuses them. At one point, a 14-year-old girl, the victim of a gang rape, is stoned to death in a town square. The well-handled horror of the scene inheres not just in the violence but in its ritualism, which makes the murder almost uneventful. The crowd gathers, the men stack their stones and throw and mostly miss and move in closer, the whole thing passes in an afternoon as might a soccer match or the shadow on a sundial; about suffering they were never wrong, the old masters.
It’s easy to see why Philip Gourevitch, the journalist best known for his work on the Rwandan genocide, has praised this book. I heard echoes of him here, especially in Ledgard’s ability to look steadily yet without voyeurism at violence. Spy novel or not, I heard some Le Carré as well; dread accumulates in Submergence like numbers ticking upward on the depth gauge of a sinking sub. I also heard Anne Carson — her way of drawing humans to scale against time; her precise, world-consuming keening. (“One characteristic of sea creatures is their constant movement,” Ledgard writes. “Not grief, not anything can stop them.”) Above all, I heard W. G. Sebald: his meditative quality, the dreamscape structure of his books, his habit of playing the most traumatic passages in history with the damper pedal down. T. S. Eliot famously claimed that great books retroactively influence their predecessors. After I read Submergence, Sebald’s consummately perambulatory work suddenly struck me as having had something liquescent and underwater about it all along.
But then, after reading this book, everything struck me as somewhat liquescent. Like water, text is a medium, but no other novel this year has left me so immersed. I started Submergence one afternoon, cut short a social event that evening to keep reading, stepped off a train at midnight with twenty pages left, and stood under a light on the platform to finish them. 
In those pages, as Danny descends toward the ocean floor, one of her colleagues cuts the lights in their submersible. Out of the darkness, two worlds surge forth — one tiny and fragile, the other immense and ancient: “Everything that belonged to them disappeared, except the light on the switches and on the emergency lever. The water was alive with bioluminescent fish.” It’s a tense scene turned suddenly transcendent. 
That, writ large, is the magic trick of this strange, intelligent, gorgeously written book. Ledgard shows us the emergency lighting of our internal universe, and the alien vastness of the outer one. He does not attempt to reconcile them, or to console us about our fate. He doesn’t have to. The one way our minds register scale correctly is through the feeling of awe, and the one consolation of consciousness is our ability to share it. Submergence is a dark book, but in such an unusual sense: Ledgard turns out the lights, and everything, inside and out, begins to glow. - Kathryn Schulz

In 2006, the British political and war correspondent J. M. Ledgard published his first novel, “Giraffe,” a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Closely based on the true story of 49 giraffes slaughtered at a zoo in Communist Czechoslovakia, it was a risky, bitter performance that balanced numerous narrative voices — including that of an erudite, lyrical giraffe — against stark reporting.   
Ledgard tried to tell this loaded story in a nuanced way despite being in authorial captivity, bound by a plot and many characters predetermined by actual events. His strategy was to showcase novelistic technique: fracturing narrative structure, using language that called attention to itself, manipulating point of view. So while inherently harrowing as a story of confinement, savagery and despair, “Giraffe” was also a novel about writing a novel, a kind of self-tutorial witnessed by his readers.       
Ledgard’s follow-up, “Submergence,” shows he has gained control over a full range of skills. He is still concerned with confinement, savagery and despair, and still recognizes that “life is never neat.” But now Ledgard writes from deep immersion in his well-imagined characters and setting, telling a strong central story involving a terrorist hostage-taking and a perilous deep-sea dive, and deploying language at once precise and flexible, as in this moment when new lovers part at the foot of a staircase: “Without warning he was battered with conflicting emotions and identities, as if a train had braked hard and all the baggage had come crashing down on top of him.” “Submergence” is a hard-edged, ultracontemporary work about people a reader cares for, apart and together, through extraordinarily precarious conditions.
The two main characters are James More, a British spy held captive by jihadists in Somalia, and Prof. Danielle Flinders, known as Danny, a biomathematician preparing for a dive in a submersible craft that will take her to “the largest uncharted hydrothermal vent field in the world, far below the plunging icebergs and the blue-black top” of the Greenland Sea. What links their stories at a narrative level is the brief, passionate romance they shared during the previous year’s Christmas holiday at a hotel on the French coast. What links them thematically is isolation and the sharply focused consciousness that accompanies life-or-death ordeals. Ledgard makes sure we get the connection early, writing of the imprisoned James that “when there was no moon he was sunk in the blackness Danny saw when she explored the abyssal deep.” This is a book obsessed with unexplored depths, whether of self, of world conflict or of the ocean, a zone Danny calls “the other world in our world.”
Each character’s piece of the story is suspenseful. Like James, a descendant of Thomas More with plans to reread his ancestor’s immortal book “Utopia” someday, the reader is placed within the hell of hostage life. We are never sure if James will survive, never allowed to relax or trust moments of calm. We look with dwindling hope to each of the well-­realized jihadist characters for potential signs of compassion or weakness. As James is moved from place to place within Somalia, we wait for Ledgard to offer a way out. Instead, he immerses us deeper in the harsh physical and psychological truths of James’s experience: “He was losing resolve, losing his sense of himself, of his story. His capacity for solving problems was diminishing.”
Danny, whose experience is quieter, whose isolation is by choice, nevertheless operates under vast pressure, literal and metaphoric, as she enters another kind of alien environment, placing herself at great risk. We are never confident of her safety either. The submersible’s journey is as tense, its outcome as uncertain, as James’s fate among his captors. She also goes — and takes us — to a place we can scarcely imagine, and convinces us that the reasons for such exploration are sound. “The fact that life can exist in the darkness, on chemicals, changes our understanding about life everywhere else in the universe.”
Knitted by their love story, these separate narratives gain emotional power neither would have alone because we know James and Danny to be devoted to each other, know them to be capable of profound connection and intimacy. They have something; they get each other; they are not clichéd spy or academic. He understands her quest for order, her passion for research, and while she never knows he is a spy, she finds him “utterly readable.” Ledgard manages the romance gracefully, unspools it slowly, allows it to resonate. Danny could be speaking for any of the novel’s dimensions when she notes that “the lesson from this is that it is easier for human beings to push outward than it is for them to explore inward.”
Near the end, when James sustains himself by recalling his time with Danny, he seizes upon something she said: “The strangest life exists in the cracks.” This could serve as a novelist’s credo. Ledgard has given, in “Submergence,” glimpses of very strange life indeed: the spy in a place so lawless that chaos is the only norm, the scientist in our planet’s least knowable region, lovers expert at self-containment. Out of this, acute understandings emerge, as when Danny, the day before her descent, realizes that “the very precariousness of her condition and more generally the condition of mankind made her body and choices more precious to herself. It was incumbent upon her to live fully; to give and to receive.” She is thinking of her own situation, but she might as well be speaking for us all. -      
Floyd Skloot

Has a novel ever been more aptly titled than J. M. Ledgard's Submergence? From the opening pages, we're reminded relentlessly that "submergence," "submersion," "sinking," "diving," and "descent" are very much what this painstakingly crafted book is about. It's a thematic obsession that ties together philosophical synopses, historical anecdotes, essayistic meditations, two central characters, and three interwoven plots. Submergence is plainly a novel of grand ambitions—a brooding, atmospheric spy tale that wants to say something about science, religion, and destiny. Unfortunately, it too often confuses mantra with meaning. Repeating "the depths" over and over again can be mesmerizing, but it doesn't go very far toward illuminating them.
The set-up of Submergence suggests that the book might have been a lively work of highbrow genre fiction. James More, a buttoned-up British spook, has been kidnapped by an Al-Qaeda group in Somalia and forced to withstand beatings as he traverses the country with his captors. Danny Flinders, a sexy Franco-Australian biomathematician, is preparing for a research mission in the Greenland Sea where she will study the "largest uncharted hydrothermal vent field in the world." Woven between these narratives is the story of the previous Christmas, when James and Danny met on the beach of a historic hotel on the French Atlantic coast, shared a feast of pheasant and sole, and fell in love.
Ledgard, a political and war correspondent for the Economist based in Nairobi, is a writer of impressive erudition, and in Submergence he bounds between subjects past, present, and future. Anecdotes about Che Guevara's love of rugby, Osama bin Laden's early years, and the death rites of the Kikuyu people flit in and out of the text, while historical forbears loom like unwelcome ghosts: James is not only a descendent of Thomas More, author of the fifteenth-century philosophical tract Utopia, but has also inherited the legacy of nineteenth-century British sea captain John More, who was swallowed, Jonah-like, by a whale. Danny travels on her voyage aboard the Pourquoi Pas?, named, we are told in a footnote, after a vessel helmed by Jean-Baptiste Charcot that sank off the coast of Iceland in 1936 drowning the French polar explorer and much of his crew.
But the protagonists aren't drawn with as much detail or care as their impressive pedigrees. James, the agent of empire, is little more than a vehicle for furthering the novel's central motif. He has been kidnapped in Somalia while posing as a water engineer, and when we meet him, he's a prisoner in a fetid cell, "sunk to the bottom, on a floor of excrement," where "the ceiling was the underside of the surface of a strange sea." His captors keep him alive largely for his supposed irrigation expertise. "Water be my cover, water cover me," he pleads.
It's through James that we meet Somalia's Al-Qaeda fighters, the most nuanced characters in the book. There is Saïf, a Saudi suicide bomber whose vest failed to detonate, who is by turns vicious and compassionate while serving as James's personal guard. There is Aziz, an Iraqi doctor who treats James's injuries with care and engages him in geopolitical conversation, all while despising him as a crusader. The jihadists watch Bambi and root for Arsenal but think nothing of killing to fight Western values. As a journalist, Ledgard is familiar with the contradictions of men like this, and while he doesn't have sympathy for their cause, he nonetheless sees them in three dimensions. Too bad we don't spend more time in their world.
Instead, we hang out with Danny Flinders as she seeks to "understand the pullulating life in the dark parts of the planet." Danny, who is disposed to marveling over the Sumerian myth of the undersea city of Abzu and listening to Bruckner's Fifth Symphony in her bunk, is a scientist-poet who could only exist in a novel. She is beautiful. She is brilliant. And she is "broadly scientific, in the Enlightenment sense of requiring the humanities to touch upon her thinking," a cold rationalist who nonetheless values manned submersible missions because "they provided the necessary leap of imagination, the human connection to the deep." Oh, and did I neglect to mention that she really likes to fuck? "She enjoyed sex on her own terms, and was inclined to regard her sexual partners as to some degree disposable, like squash partners," we learn. To put it bluntly, she's a philosophy grad student's idea of a beach paperback pin-up.
Up until now I've avoided the phrase "Ledgard writes" when citing passages from Submergence. There's a reason: Submergence may be written in the third-person, but it isn't narrated like a novel. It's narrated like the Bible, with the occasional use of an omniscient passive voice ("it was said") and the anticlimactic tendency to collapse entire scenes into a single sentence. In what should be a gripping moment, James, submerged up to his waist in the Indian Ocean, turns his back to a firing squad and awaits his execution. But the suspense is short-circuited: After the terrible burst of gunfire, "he cried out and pulled off his soiled kikoi and washed himself between the legs."
Instead of building tension through action, Ledgard ratchets up the stakes of the novel's apocalyptic visions. As James becomes increasingly certain he will die as a prisoner and Danny sails toward the point at which she will descend into the ocean's depths, hints of a nightmarish present metastasize into hallucinations of an impending dystopia. Early on, James describes his experience swimming in fancy hotel pools as floating "in the deep end above the mess of lights of an African city in the valley below—disordered clumps, wrongly beautiful, like a scan of a damaged brain." Later, contemplating the fundamentalist faith of his captors, James imagines a not-too-distant world of "new cults concerned with the harvesting of body parts and brains" that "would absorb the mystical agency of angels, demons, miracles, and creation myths." For her part, Danny wonders if we're not heading toward a "reboot of mankind, where the genetic distinctiveness of human beings breaks down."
Ledgard's most interesting thoughts burst forth in these fascinatingly unhinged premonitions, in which the novel finally moves beyond the theme of "submergence." "If this was happening in a science-fiction world we would see it clearly for what it is," Ledgard writes of the human devastation of the oceans, "but we don't because it's happening here and now." Submergence tries to remove us from the "here and now," but the writing is so dense with allusion, argument, and pretension, that it feels suffocating, not clarifying. By the end, we find ourselves inundated, deluged, and—oh, yes—submerged. - Eric Benson

James and Danielle come across each other at a fancy hotel in France. They spend four days eating and making love. James is a spy but pretends to be a water engineer. He's descended from Thomas More, whom he can quote, in a limited way, during dinner. Danielle is a high-flying, deep-diving oceanographer, who insists there is no such pursuit as "oceanography" – it's merely a congregation of scientists from different disciplines turning their attention to the ocean. After their tryst, she's off on the gay carousel of international research: meaning, loyalty and responsibility seem limited among these blenderised intellectuals and scientists, "industrial collaborators" whom she vaguely distrusts. She is pretty vague about everything.
James goes to Somalia and is taken captive by an al-Qaida cell in Kismayo. The ostensible subject of Submergence is jihad: specifically what Ledgard suggests is an amateurish, misconceived jihad that has ruined the nation and people of Somalia, a place for which he makes a passionate, if strangled, plea. During months of being moved from hiding place to hiding place, James tries to work out the differences and similarities between himself and his captors. The jihadists, mostly illiterate boys, come off badly in the comparison. After all, he's a chap who grew up in a big house in England and has read a lot of books and frequents hotels where he romances female intellectuals. James More starts to sound like James Bond, whereas we'd prefer him to be a man out of Javier Marías's more worldly study of government operatives. For all his western concern and conceits, his book-larnin', James can't really have a debate within himself: he can't imagine anything besides escaping to a bath and a cocktail in a fancy hotel in Kenya.
Ledgard's previous novel, Giraffe, about the awful fate of a herd of giraffes in communist Czechoslovakia, was politically and poetically arresting – razor sharp. He seized on an odd moment in human, animal and environmental history, and told us exactly how and why it was so frightening. He is a clever, insidious writer, who uses his own obsessions in the service of ideas and important questions, such as an eerie description, in Submergence, of al-Qaida fighters bathed in the colours of Walt Disney's Bambi – the only entertainment allowed them other than DVDs of beheadings. Submergence is different, a risky book, with shards of Coetzee, Irwin, Grass, and even Bernard Wolfe – not all of them good. It tries to deal perhaps too globally with belief and hard biological fate.
The hadal zone, the very deepest of marine abysses, is Danielle's speciality. Way down there in the dark where we and capitalism (and Islam, come to that) have yet to penetrate, there's an indestructible ecosystem which will go on no matter what we do upstairs with our missiles and our Monbiots. James clumsily ponders a range of metaphors for the abyss: the soul, without the light of religion (James is a believer); the blackness of anarchy and terrorism; the vacuum which will obtain when we and our ideas have been minced by mini-hagfish under the lip of the continental shelf; and – wait for it – the tripes of a whale that swallowed another notable ancestor that James conveniently had.
When Submergence is not a lecture (do we really have to be reminded who Karen Blixen was, or told the ocean is being fished out?), and when it is not a rolling news soap opera, it is fascinating. But it is not a novel. It shouldn't have been let out of captivity yet. There are too many random arty anecdotes and memories which feel personal to Ledgard, not to the characters we're supposed to care about. Danielle thinks and says so little, in fact, we're startled when confronted quite late in the story with a passage like this: "She had to come up with methods of counting the methanogens, the hyperthermophilic autotrophic iron reducers, and the peculiar states and leagues of archaea and bacteria. She had also tried to identify the boundary which separated the living part from where there was no life and to understand the percolation between existence and nonexistence…" Of course we sympathise.
It's a relief to be told that the earth and its "true" riches will never be affected no matter how we botch things up. But Captain Nemo, who strangely gets a kicking here, said a lot of this more elegantly and appealingly in 1870. Meanwhile, we have to live in the part of the world that Danielle doesn't care about, and James cannot get to grips with, and damn it, we're going to die here, without much help from these two. - Todd McEwen

I have a dark and abiding love for the electronic dance music of the nineties and aughts. If it shows up on the “Faithless” Pandora station; if it has been compiled in a collection like “I Love Ibiza” or “Ultimate Trance Vol. 18”; if it has the seductive hooting of indigenous pipes and angelic female voices over a thumping beat; chances are I like it. They have machines that pulse a beam of sound and cause you to fall down shitting; I hear this kind of music and compulsively yearn. I first heard it when I was a cooped-up teenager watching MTV Europe in a hot Athenian apartment, and it has always seemed to represent all of the sexy, free, mystical things that are expressly forbidden the adolescent. None of my experiences with this music in the wild have approached its promise when it vibrates in that apartment or in my headphones, while I vacuum the house or write this review. Of all this genre’s notes, the plaintive thumps the loudest.
I tell you this now only because something about the experience of reading J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence recreated this feeling so profoundly that I felt compelled to break out the Faithless and examine the component parts of my enthusiasm. I learned about Submergence on Twitter (never say that Twitter never gave me anything). The novel is, variously, a love story, martyrology, heresiography, science book, and spy novel. Like its Twitter supporters, who spoke in rapturous terms, I was sucked into the novel right away, from its commanding first line — “It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012″ — to its final epigraph from Horace: “Plunge it in deep water: it comes up more beautiful.”
The plaintive is alive in this novel. It is largely the story of a James More, a British spy who is being held by Somali Jihadists. The latter are beleaguered and ineffectual in the scheme of their own ambitions, but deadly effective for people in “a very dark and specific place” — like James More in his unfinished bathroom, like the fourteen-year-old Somali girl who is hooded with burlap before her stoning. As More is taken out and mock-executed, as he is worked over and then marginally repaired by a marginally sympathetic doctor, as he is taken to a desolate waterless part of Somalia and then to a mangrove forest, he contemplates damp England, and his forebear Thomas More, and, most importantly, a romantic week during which he met and fell in love with a dazzling scientist based in London. The scholarship of this woman, Danny Flinders, forms the leitmotif of the novel: she is interested in the patterns and mysteries of the deepest ocean, the least known part of the world. The novel follows More in his dark and specific place and Danny in hers — a submersible in a near-mythological section of the ocean called the Hadal deep. Submergence flirts both with what is called Big History, a an all-inclusive discipline of which the human experience forms a miniscule part, and with the genre of “CliFi.” As Danny tells James during their interlude:
Let’s say the Atlantic is 160 million years old… We appeared less than one million years ago. We walked in yesterday. It’s not much of a claim. Yet somewhere in the Atlantic right now and in other oceans… some man is smashing up a seamount more ancient than any greenwood on land, which he can’t see and refuses to value.
I have a weakness for bizarre analogies, but I think this novel aligns with my secretly cherished dance music, both its content and its praxis. Thematically, the novel shares many of the same elements with electronic dance music — the erotic, the foreboding, the melancholy, the mystical, the vaguely orientalist. There are reasons that electronic dance music and club culture has been cited in scholarly articles about modern forms of religious or spiritual practice. James himself thinks along these lines — one of his dreams in captivity describes:
…a Lenten carnival. A Christ-like figure on a carnival float was leading a crowd of young people in a dance. The music was techno. The street was narrow. Bodies were pressed up against old buildings…the Christ and the crowd repeated over and over with their hands a thousand years of love, a thousand year of peace.
(The bacchanal is cut short by a suicide bomber.)
Electronic dance music invokes mystical themes, with lines like “This is my church” or nonsense about the ocean: “Open my eyes/ Bigger/ Listen to us/ Swimming in Saltwater.” Its beats are structured for maximum epiphany and release. It is culturally affiliated with mind-expanding drugs that promise vast sensation and awareness that will be lost in the morning. Submergence too encourages spiritual-philosophical meditations about things you don’t really understand. The novel is full of information about the most mysterious parts of the planet and its inhabitants; never before have I heard about a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, let alone pondered the romance of its liminal existence. Ledgard concludes an unforgettable description of decomposition and reanimation at the bottom of the ocean thus: “Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.” Submergence offers up a similar, if headier and wetter, line of inquiry than the bio-mathematics of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: “We exist only as a film on the water,” Danny tells James. Whoa.
(This novel encourages you to look for the meaning of things. I learned later that “Hadal” is also the term for “word, “speech,” or “expression” in Somali. I don’t know what this means, but it just seems important. After all, the Angel Gabriel told Mohammed, “Recite”; the miracle Qu’ran was his recitation. For better or worse, this is the mode that Ledgard puts you into.)
Some of my interest in techno music is rooted in that yearning teenage place, trapped in a parental apartment and wishing to be out among the European youth, to whom everything, I erroneously believed, was permitted. The novel is finally calibrated to exploit yearning for the world. Danny and James embody the infinitely attractive versions of statelessness. She is a brilliant and great-looking woman of Australian and Martiniquan descent, with a cabin in Italy, an apartment in London, at home in Switzerland and the bottom of the ocean. James is both personally and professionally tied to his particular state, but he is still at home in the world, a speaker of Arabic. In his normal life you can find him among the Jacaranda trees, wearing linen shirts and eating breakfasts of “papaya and scrambled eggs, toast, and Kenyan tea.” These are cosmopolitans.
Americans are sensitive to the very existence of people this cosmopolitan, and they show poorly in the novel. They are the CIA guy in a food court talking over a terrorist’s errant appendage: “We think it’s an Arab hand, don’t we Bob?” They are on the boat with Danny, the un-fun ones who spend the voyage “sipping iced water,” who “purchase ugly expedition t-shirts.” The women “covered themselves in such loose-hanging cotton garbs…seldom wore high heels in their lives, and…felt [Danny] was a snob and an ice maiden.” Their hotels are “prefabricated, with piped music, airless corridors, tinted windows that would not open, circulated air that could not be shut off, a small plastic bathtub, chlorinated water…” Meanwhile, the British have “Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle” (and lots of club hits). The American reader is left feeling a bit resentful: Just you wait, motherfucker — our uniformity is contagious. And then Ledgard has the last laugh, because he shows the very American-ness of that instinct — the blind, obliterating force of American reaction:
It glinted. It burned from its tail. It was an astonishing creation. Entirely human, wholly American…It was impossible in the final moment not to see the missile as something more.
There are several versions of statelessness. In addition to Danny and James, there is the decidedly nasty kind, the men who leave home turf of Saudi, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, or the United States, to come to Somalia and build a frontier of Jihad, a sad inversion of the roving Muslim scholars of centuries past. Jihadists are often described as harboring a medieval view of things, but this is in many ways an affront to medieval Islam, when the practice of religion and the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences and humanities were often the same thing. I think Ledgard knows, although one is never sure whether James More does, that without these Muslim scholars and their translations from Greek to Arabic and back to Greek, James More’s ancestor Thomas, his beloved Francis Bacon, might never have known their Classical philosophers. (Ironically, a real-life “Thomas More Law Center” exists, in benighted America of course, to forestall those “Radical Muslims and Islamic organizations in America” who “take advantage of our legal system and are waging a ‘Stealth Jihad’ within our borders.”) I disliked how little room the novel made for the non-Jihadi varieties of Islam, but why should it, I suppose, when More’s captors make even less?
Many critics have made passing reference to John le Carré as a point of departure for Submergence, since this novel, because of all the mythical deep and so forth, is so much more than just a spy novel. But some of its success, I think, lies in the dexterous deployment of elements of genre fiction. John le Carré is himself a departure and elaboration of genre. And while he is not poetic in the Ledgard mode, like Ledgard he is so observant, so fond of characterizations, and makes them in such a way — with the dangerous seduction of erudite British public servants — that you are certain they are true. Like the novels of John le Carré, who has a conscience and is often concerned with dark matters, Submergence thrums at the level of high genre from which wonderful novels emerge. Lonesome Dove (the ne plus ultra). Neuromancer. Charlie Smith’s Men in Miami Hotels.
High genre is fiction that allows you to investigate an individual text, because it is full of its own traits and merits, whether in its characterizations, its plot, or its prose. Regular genre, I suppose, is something you can only talk about as a family — tracing the themes shared collectively among its members. High genre will always be vulnerable to the taint of its lower peers, because it shares the equipment, the same beats. This is why people are drawn to True Detective, and yet can accept assertions that it is just another dead naked lady show. I mentioned the praxis of electronic dance music. Detractors would have it that this music is derivative noise, the artless patching together of beats at just the right frequency to make the ladies tear off their cardigans in the middle of the dance hall. These are the same kinds of things that people say about genre novels. But DJs (like medieval Islamic poets, in fact), demonstrate their mastery through use of the material of their peers and predecessors. You don’t always need to reinvent the wheel. You just need to be really good at spinning it.
There is some less-high genre at play in Ledgard’s novel, too. Rand Richards Cooper’s New York Times review of The Constant Gardener called le Carré “the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond — the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile.” This was 2001, several years before the Bond franchise was reanimated in a darker key, with all the visual pleasures of earlier Bonds but decidedly more brooding. I’m thinking of the film Casino Royale, which, like Submergence and techno music, is sexy, sad, and possessing of high production values.
Ledgard wrote a scholastic hero and turns your head with trippy descriptions of oceans and molecular life, but some of his pleasures are carnal in the Bond tradition. Consider here, when Danny and James meet over Christmas at the Hotel Atlantic, a Ritz hotel on the French coast, which, with its copper bathtubs and Turcoman rugs, its lobster bisque and suckling pig, is probably the best approximation of one version of heaven in modern fiction. (The ceiling beams have been “soaked in milk for a year to harden them.”) In rustic French country splendor, as the snow blankets the world outside and the wind howls across the Atlantic, these sexy people meet for dinner. She, who will be described as both “a Persian and an alley cat,” is looking spectacular: “Her dress shimmered purple and brown and in and out of those colors, showing off her breasts and hips.” He wore “a blue suit with suede shoes and a gray Turnbull & Asser shirt. He had only his regimental cufflinks with him. A silver parachute on maroon.” As the snow pours, they eat:
…servings of duck foie gras with a peach wine jelly, Scottish scallops, ham, deboned saddle of lamb from the Auvergne, white beans with truffles, sea bream, poached apricots, bay leaf panna cotta, cheese and chocolates. They drank champagne, a house white wine, Rothschild Bordeaux, Chateau Villefranche dessert wine…
And more. They smoke cigarettes. They go upstairs and do it on the rug. By the middle of the novel I was Googling the hotel to see if it existed and if it were possible to get a room. It is now my single greatest material aspiration to stay in a hotel like this.
The Bond element resurfaces in funny little ways, as here, when James travels to a small island to track down the family of a terrorist. A sister cooperates, and after their interview, James has another request.
“You’ve been very kind,” he said. “Might I ask one more favor?”
“But of course.”
“I need a haircut. Do you think you could cut my hair?”
“I’ve never cut gold hair!”
They took a communal taxi across the town. They were squeezed in the back with another woman. He was buttock to buttock between the two…[she] rested her head absently on his knee.”
It’s such a pointless, comparatively light-hearted, pseudo-sexual, weirdly colonialist interlude, right out of Bond. I’ll cut your hair, I murmured to myself, picturing Daniel Craig.
Some people interpret the invocation of genre as a way to temper enthusiasm, which is not my goal here. I am very enthusiastic about this novel, because I found it transporting. Those dinners, those Bondian wine lists, those Condé Nast interiors, are so materially exciting that they do not necessarily detract. If the novel’s national and civilizational categories are shallow, its ecological meditations are deep, its imagery sublime. How can I forget the ship Challenger trawling an unexplored trench, its nets bringing up “slime that covered the inside of the dredge…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”? Like the dance music of my teens, Submergence takes me to another plane. I’m so young in evolutionary terms, after all, and addicted to consciousness. -

People ask, what kind of writer do you want to be. I say, I want to be like Brancusi. I want my writing to have that rigour, that beauty, and that ability to see the world in a new way.—J.M. Ledgard

Coffee House Press is one of the very few publishers whose books I will buy simply because Coffee House published them (another, in case you're curious, is Small Beer Press. Apparently, I am partial to publishers with beverages in their names). At this year's AWP conference, I happened to pass the Coffee House booth, and I was curious to see what was new. On a table at the front of the booth, J.M. Ledgard's Submergence grabbed by eye: a novel partially about events in East Africa, with a cover blurb by Teju Cole, published by Coffee House ... how could I resist? I could not. Life caught up with me, though, and I didn't have time to read the book until this week.
I begin by writing about where and why I bought the book because I'm trying to stay specific and concrete when what I most want to do is enthuse and exclaim, and I fear hyperbole, and I fear overselling the book, setting up expectations that can't be met by anything written by a mortal. I want to say: This is the best contemporary novel I have read in a long time, and I've read some excellent contemporary novels this year. I want to say: If you can only read one book in the next week/month/year, read this book. I want to say: We need more books like this book, and yet how can other books be like this book? I want to say: This book could change your life.
I won't really say any of that, though, because it all sounds jejune, and anyway, different readers respond differently. For instance, at The Guardian, Todd McEwen had a generally negative response to Submergence. Reading his review made me think terrible things about Todd McEwen, I will admit, but it also reminded me that some people are blind stupid illiterate unimaginative willfully ignorant willfully narrow in their aesthetics stupid stupid stupid opinions vary. Rather than foaming at the mouth like a madman, I shall try instead to describe a few of the many qualities I find so admirable in this extraordinary book.
In an interview with Philip Gourevitch, Ledgard said, "Submergence is an attempt at what I would call planetary writing, which is not the same as nature writing, it’s more political, more discarnate." Submergence is, indeed, planetary and political, but complexly and in some ways misleadingly so. It would, for instance, be possible to read the book as advocating for one or another of its characters' worldviews, but the view of the text as a whole is somewhat different from that of any single character. That's as it should be in a novel of this scope.
Scope and scale are central to the book's concerns — concerns that move from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic. In 200 pages, Ledgard gives us a view of people, nature, history, and science that feels more specific and yet more vast than that of all but the best science fiction novels. (Indeed, I thought a few times while reading: Kim Stanley Robinson could learn a thing or two from this book...) The world as we find it — and keep finding it through exploration — is a world of surprise, a world that exceeds imagination. Submergence touches some of that sublimity.
The sublime can get abstract awfully quickly, and one of the great pleasures of Submergence is how concrete it is in its details and language. The book's foundation is two characters: James More, a British spy captured by al-Qaeda jihadis in Somalia, and Danny (Danielle) Flinders, a biomathematician and oceanographer preparing to plunge deep into the Atlantic in the submersible Nautile. James and Danny had a brief, passionate romance on the French Atlantic coast before heading their separate ways, and they remained in touch, which seems to have surprised (and pleased) them both, as neither is the sort of person to let romance much affect them. Their ancestries are especially meaningful, too: James is a direct descendent of Sir Thomas More, writer of Utopia; Danny is the daughter of a father from Australia and a mother from Martinique. She grew up in various places, and in "her complexion and variety of dress and habits and manners there was something of her mother's Creole background." James has a very clear sense of his ethnicity and nationality, one built from culture and history, one he has served in the military and now the secret intelligence service — he is, for all of his worldliness and cosmopolitanism, a warrior for a particular culture, a particular concept of civilization that must, inevitably, clash with other concepts of civilization. Danny, on the other hand, is well read and well educated (not a scientist who only knows her science), but the scale of her concerns is different, her sense of identity less narrow than James's.
 These characters and situations allow Ledgard to roam across the world and into its depths without losing focus. Submergence is a philosophical novel grounded in its characters' perceptions. Again and again, the text moves from scenes with Danny and James to essayistic exposition drawn from those scenes, commenting on them, contrasting with them. It's a loose enough structure to accommodate a wealth of ideas and information, but it always returns us to the characters and their perceptions. The effect is to suggest some of the vastness of history and nature while also showing how human minds accommodate that vastness. The narrative point of view drifts, dives, rises, and though James and Danny are our primary point of view characters, we also get glimpses into the points of view of the people around them, particularly James's captors. It would have been entirely appropriate for Ledgard to steal a move from the last paragraphs of Chekhov's "Gusev" (a predecessor in many ways to Submergence) and write from the point of view of the fish, the clouds, the ocean. In his own way, I suppose, he does just that.
Ledgard presents it all in prose that is evocative and lyrical while also straightforward. (It reminded me of a mix of Jean Rhys, Paul Bowles, and Jim Crace.) The sentence structures are seldom complex, the diction never ornate (technical, sometimes, but not ornate), and yet the words sing. The paragraphs feel boiled down without being hardboiled, muscular but not muscle-bound. It's among the most difficult kinds of prose to pull off, because it can so easily become monotonous, frigid, or mannered, and yet here it never does. Consider these paragraphs:
She could see the jagged rocks further out to sea on which many ships had foundered. The sailors, fearing being drowned so close to shore, must have called out for an acre of barren ground; broom, furze, anything, in their fear.
 The waves were messy, porridgy, falling off before the lighthouse. There were no surfers. She knew how deep it was out there at the horizon. She had these other languages of numbers and sonar. She saw the deepness that was at the edge of France and it made the beach under her feel like a ledge on a cliff.

There's nothing ostentatiously lyrical there, few words of more than just two syllables, and yet the specificity and variety are evocative, unforced, letting the music of the consonants and vowels resonate (sailor[s]/shore, drowned/ground, oo to ur to ear, all those e sounds and l sounds in the last sentence, etc.). Add line breaks and we might mistake this for a poem by, say, W.S. Merwin.
The efficiency of such writing can achieve a lot quickly. Consider how much characterization Ledgard fits into a few sentences here (about Danny):
She knew nothing of development work or consultancies. It was said she was worldy. Well, she was worldly in wealth, and had been worldly enough in the toilet stalls of nightclubs, but she was not properly worldly. She had not come into contact with the poor. She was spoiled, like her mother. Her instinct was for refinement — of literature, fashion, cuisine — refinement of everything, really, and what could not be refined was not worth having. Could poverty be refined? She did not think so. On her visits to Australia she headed to the galleries in Sydney. These days, Manly was seamy enough for her. She had been taken to Flinders Island, which had been named for her paternal forebear. Despite her father's insistence, she had never visited an Aboriginal community in Australia or shown any interest in indiginous culture, except in so far as to use its images and textiles to garland her life. She was a woman with slave ancestry, yet she was prejudiced against Africa as a continent without research universities. Aside from a trip to Cape Town she had only been to Africa once, on an oceanographic research vessel that had anchored off the coast of Senegal. They had motored ashore in great excitement, but the village they arrived at had left her embarrassed. The village women gathered around her and asked her to speak on their behalf. They recognized her. She felt found out. It was not about skin color; that was of no importance. It was a sudden sense of community, a rusticity that complicated her metropolitan identity.
It's an extraordinary passage, one I am tempted to analyze word by word, but I will refrain, and instead just stand back and bow to it in awe. Look not only at what that passage says (a lot!), but what it does — the full movement of its narrative, the little discursive signals that herald points of view, the tidal movement between generality and specificity. The richness of characterization here could easily be missed if the passage were read quickly. It's dangerous for a writer to put so much of importance into such a relatively small space of words, and yet the reward for careful readers is immense: worlds unfurl from the words.
The care and complexity with which Ledgard draws his main characters extends to the various human cultures that also pass through these pages. Again, specificity achieves wonders: each geography and culture is different, and then each individual within those geographies and cultures are different ... and yet still human, still part of something the size of a species. Scale, scope, perspective. Macro and micro dance together. The jihadis are not presented as all the Muslims in the world, but they're also not just all jihadis, or revolutionaries, or terrorists. Somalia is presented not simply as a place of indistinguishable hordes of black people (hello, Black Hawk Down!), but rather a place of varied people, histories, influences. In this novel, East Africa is at least as complex as Europe, and is complexly tied to Europe and also to everywhere. Global forces exist alongside local ones. The anti-American guerrillas love Disney movies, and interpret Bambi into their ideology. Just look at all the history, ideology, and power compressed into this one image from an al Qaeda camp: "They sandbagged the main hut with food aid sacks filled with wet sand. On each of the sacks was a Stars and Stripes and the words Gift of the People of the United States."
Myth and science converge throughout the novel, with myth providing the necessary metaphors to make the immensities and mysteries of the world comprehensible to human minds. James finally justifies his own choices in religion and culture as ones to render himself coherent. In a remarkable passage late in the novel, after James has considered all sorts of similarities and paradoxes between cultures and beliefs, one of his captors says he expects they'll both die soon and that that is why he wants James to convert to Islam. James refuses.
There was no chance he would convert. It was not just a question of Islam, it was the way life was constructed. A man lived his threescore years and ten, less than a whale, less than a roughy fish, and the only way to come to terms with his mortality was to partake in something that would outlive him; a field cleared of stones, a piece of jewelry, a monument, a machine. Every man was a loyalist for what he knew. Even tramps fought for the tramping life. Life was too short for him to renounce the English parish church, once Catholic, with its knights' tombs, prayer cushions, flower arrangements, the brass lectern in the shape of an eagle. No, the quiet of those places — the ancient front door, the graveyard, the meadow, the damp — gave him a sense of belonging. He was loyal to them. It was too late to abandon the English canon, from Chaucer to Dickens, the First World War poets, Graham Greene typing through the smog and drizzle... He had said it before: he was an intelligence officer who reached out, spoke Arabic, read widely, but if the Crusades were invoked — and Saif was invoking them — then he was a Crusader. If he had to die at the hands of fanatics, he wished to remain familiar and coherent to those whom he loved and who loved him.
James's stubborn desire for coherence from canon and culture is produced by his recognition of the immensity of the universe, but it is also an utterly inadequate response to that immensity, a narrowing response, a warrior's response. Note how determinedly masculine it is, how archaic, even anachronistic — throughout, James thinks about man and the history of mankind, but the most revelatory and wondrous insights in the book come from Danny, who is less fettered by the old world's identities, more aware of humanity and the systems that affect it and are affected by it (though her thoughts, too, are unfortunately presented within the sexist terms of mankind. It's hard to escape the diction of our authors). James is a mirror of his captors; Danny lives a less destructive life, a life more aware of wonder than horror. Horror is, with the right perspective, a wonder: "Even eating our way through cows, apples, everything, in our billions, you know we're nothing compared to the life down there. That life can't be destroyed, it feeds on death — or less than death — it reconfigures and goes further in, into hotter water."
Ultimately, Submergence is a call for humility. Its thrilling movement through time and space serves to remind us of how tiny we are in our mortality, how transient. For all our technologies, histories, and myths, we are fragile creatures, young, whatever posterity we may acquire a flash against geologic time. We are little more than liquid, and will always flow back to the sea.
You will be drowned in oblivion, the River Lethe, swallowing water to erase all memory. It will not be the nourishing womb you began your life in. It will be a submergence. You will take your place in the boiling-hot fissures, among the teeming hordes of nameless microorganisms that mimic no forms, because they are the foundation of all forms. In your reanimation you will be aware only that you are a fragment of what once was, and are no longer dead. Sometimes this will be an electrifying feeling, sometimes a sensation of the acid you eat, or the furnace under you. You will burgle and rape other cells in the dark for a seeming eternity, but nothing will come of it. Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.

Book of the Year: “Submergence” by J.M. Ledgard by

Review by Malcolm Forbes
Review by Nicholas Royle

J. M. Ledgard, Giraffe, Jonathan Cape, 2006.

Based on the true story of the slaughter, in Czechoslovakia, in 1975, of the largest captive herd of giraffes, Ledgard's meditative novel creates a textured allegory for the country's oppression by its Communist regime. The story follows a hemodynamicist who has studied the giraffes, and a factory worker whose somnambulism is alleviated in their presence. Both are entranced by the creatures' stately aloofness, and when the order comes to kill the giraffes, which are infected with a contagious disease, they attempt to bring a measure of humanity to the workings of the state. Ledgard combines fine research with lyrical style; his description of a giraffe's astonishingly complex circulatory system is particularly memorable. The use of recurring images—mermaids, a rusalka (a Slavic water nymph)—conjures a world of fantasy and menace, balanced between dream and nightmare.

This phantasmagoric debut novel by Economist correspondent Ledgard recounts the extermination of the world's largest captive herd of giraffes in a Czechoslovakian zoo in 1975. The story begins with the animals' 1973 capture in East Africa (narrated by Snehurka, the herd leader); then Emil, a haemodynamicist (a biologist who studies vertical blood flow), narrates their journey to the zoo, where the animals serve as entertainment for workers like Amina, who is fascinated by the giraffes and spends her free time with the silent creatures (they remind her of "a nation asleep, of workers normalized into sleepwalkers"). Other narrators come and go, including a virologist in a secret government laboratory and a forester/sharpshooter. Throughout, Emil ruminates on the ills of the Czech "Communist moment," but he is also this inventive novel's weakness, as he remains ungraspable and too much inside his dreamy, free-associative head. Once the giraffes are discovered to be diseased, their fate is sealed, and the novel's narrators converge as the government's secret plan to shoot the animals unfolds. Ledgard's novel has bursts of sparkling intensity—the giraffe massacre, told from the sharpshooter's point of view, is particularly wrenching—but a stronger cast of narrators would have better bolstered Ledgard's magnificent material. - Publishers Weekly
Giraffes, so large and so powerful, are also among the most vulnerable creatures on the savannah. The contrast is only emphasised by their peaceful expressions, their dainty, long-lashed eyelids, and by the way in which they seem to float through the undergrowth. It's very easy to fall in love with giraffes, and JM Ledgard has fallen in love with 49 of them. He's spun his first novel out of a tale he came across presumably while working as foreign correspondent for the Economist (his day job): the slaughter of the world's largest captive herd at the Dvur Králové zoo in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic on April 3 1975. Were the animals carrying a dangerous virus? Or was there a problem with a plan to move the beasts to a safari park, the thought of so many animals wandering relatively free being too much for the apparatchiks to stomach?
Ledgard tells the story through the eyes of some of those involved. Chief among these are Emil, an informative haematologist, and Amina, a sleepwalking factory girl. Their voices lend the book its elegiac tone, and through them we learn that Czechoslovakian communism is a blight which replaces the best "with the worst, the patriots with lackeys, the questing with the credulous few". So it's not just Amina who's sleepwalking, it's the entire citizenry, who "plough their own furrow of despair in the concrete", just like the wretched animals in the zoo.
Ledgard invites us to compare the Czechs not with the giraffes, but with their stunted cousins the okapi, who have never been forced to achieve grace by the need to reach up for food. The implication is clear: beauty comes through striving, in following the evolutionary imperative to adapt and survive. By trying to perfect the world communism is blocking this process, creating in its place a kind of living death. As a literal embodiment of this unacceptable truth, the giraffes must die.
Which is fine, as far as it goes. More problematic, to this reviewer's secular eyes, is the other half of Ledgard's metaphorical system. The author draws continual parallels between the murder of the giraffes and the crucifixion of Christ. Does he really want us to see the butchering of the animals as a blood sacrifice that will wash Czechoslovakia clean of its ideological illusions and lead it forth into a new world of liberty, light and free-flowing capital? It would appear so. At one point Ledgard has Amina wax poetic about the golden ratio, a mathematical regularity found in natural structures that is often taken as a sign of God's design and/or the primacy of mathematics. There are many similar passages, all stemming from his apparent wish to blend Christianity, evolutionary theory and economic liberalism into some kind of aesthetic notion of the good (well, he does write for the Economist).
Ledgard places his characters fully at the service of this essentially neoplatonist worldview. They exist mainly as mouthpieces for research and mood, and show little convincing interaction or development. That's fine by me: realism isn't the intention here. But a symbolist work - however beguiling the writing (and the prose here is certainly that) - must stand or fall on the depth of its concepts. And seductive though Ledgard's reworking of this ancient tradition undoubtedly is, it's still just posh mysticism, and the first step on a road that leads inevitably, alas, to Paulo Coelho. Where I should have felt moved I started to feel manipulated, which is a shame, because there's plenty to like in Ledgard's novel: not least the wondrous, and gentle, giraffes.· James Flint

I remember seeing this book in the shops (remember those?) when it was published in 2006. Its handsome cover drew me, as did the stark title, but a lukewarm review or two dissuaded me. Only when I heard someone tweeting enthusiasm for it ahead of publication of the author’s new novel Submergence, did I get around to trying it.
Giraffe is one of those books which comes along rarely and, although written in English, feels like a novel translated from another language. You may well ask what I mean by such a nonsensical formulation. It is something to do with the other-ness of the subject, structure and setting. It seems to shed the bonds of typical English literary fiction right from the start with an opening chapter narrated by – what else? – a Reticulated giraffe named Sněhurka. If you thought the opening chapter of Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk was pushing the boat out – a birth, described from the precociously articulate viewpoint of the newborn – then here is a further development. “I hang halfway out. I swing. I fall. I am found, I am found at this moment…” For those impatient of such fancies – but what else is literature? – Sněhurka’s narrative lasts only a few pages, long enough for her to see from the African plain “a band of Czechoslovakians resolve out of the thorn trees.” She and her herd are captured. “‘There is socialism in our method,’ I hear them say. ‘Capitalists capture one or two giraffes, while we take an entire herd; because our intention is political, to issue forth a new subspecies.’”
To explore this political intention, the ‘Communist moment’ – we are in 1970s eastern Europe – we turn to human narrators. First is Emil, a haemodynamicist, that is, someone who deals in blood flow. “I am a student of hidden flow,” he says, with allegory aforethought. He tells the shipping director, who is transporting the giraffes to Czechoslovakia, that he wants to study giraffe blood flow as a model for “an anti-gravity space suit, such as we would like to design, which does not allow blood to settle in the lower extremities of the body.” In reality, Emil’s interests are purely investigative, the beauty of knowledge for its own sake, and he has little sympathy with the ruling regime. “Communism is the religion of a flightless bird, a penguin, which has no imagination of flight.” Similarly, the book treats its subject both allegorically and literally. Giraffe is a sort of Moby-Dick of the species camelopardalis. Like that book, it’s fascinating, surprising, and structured more carefully than is immediately apparent.
Also like Moby-Dick, Giraffe is at times dull. Ledgard’s strengths are in dialogue and vivid description. The story moves slowly for much of its length, as Sněhurka and the rest of the herd are transported to Europe. Emil meets characters with fascinating stories, but there are also longueurs, and the characters’ quirks can seem a little too freighted with meaning. “I am drawn to the edge of things, to margins and borders,” Emil himself reminds us (he also has a repeatedly described fascination with heights). Or a ship’s captain: “Since my passage is across the surface, I am not much interested in the interior of things.” Then again, this direct indirectness has a charm of its own; the otherness or foreignness I described above. The middle of the book is weaker than the start and end (though there aren’t many books over 150 pages about which that couldn’t be said). Later, other narrators come, and Ledgard’s storytelling ability kicks in with tremendous force toward the close, where readers who love careful balance between the beginning and the end of a book will be rewarded. The ending is a virtuosic fifty-page scene in multiple voices, which is likely to stay with me for as long as I remember books at all.
This is a book about the idea that human will can be exerted over nature’s rules. “The new giraffes will become used to the [Czechoslovakian] winters. They’ll learn to move on ice,” says the director of the zoo. The vet differs: “They’ll be like girls in high heels coming home from a country dance.” The extreme example Ledgard has chosen gives the idea both sinister and comic elements. The book is also about exerting will over other humans (the giraffes are not just giraffes). Czechoslovakia is “a country where officials say openly they can do whatever they like with it, if they keep the beer flowing.” It explores the relations between humans and animals. A zookeeper tells one of the narrators, “In an anthropocentric world … the point of a giraffe is to tower over us. The giraffe is the tall-man, just as the hippo is the fat-man. If a giraffe appears in a children’s story at all, it is only on account of its height.” It is also, most surprisingly, a true story. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “All this really happened, more or less,” when (back to Emil) “Communists took Czechoslovakia by the neck and wrung it.” - John Self

If you’re going to read only one novel this year that has an opening chapter narrated by a newly born giraffe, why shouldn’t it be this one? Finding a convincing “voice” for such a creature is obviously going to test any novelist, and this giraffe, named Snehurka, appears to have attended a rather perfervid creative writing class: “The first thing I see is my own form, my hooves impossibly far away, slicked with fluid, and my mazed hide, bloodied, flickering in the haze, burning, as though I am not passing from my mother to the ground, but from the constellation Camelopardalis into the Earth’s atmosphere.”
If this is the kind of thing you like, you’re going to like this novel a lot. For my money it’s an opening that threatens to cripple the work completely, and if Ledgard gets away with it, it’s because we’re prepared to be indulgent toward what is by any standard an ambitious and remarkable first novel. This is not to say Ledgard needed to have been quite so indulgent of himself.
Snehurka is, fortunately, only the first of a number of narrators, the rest being human, and among them they tell an engrossing story. In the early 1970’s a herd of 32 giraffes of different subspecies are rounded up in the wilds of Africa and transported to Czechoslovakia to breed and form a new type of giraffe, and to be yet another of the glories of Communism. In a zoo in an unnamed town the animals thrive and become a source of wonder and veneration. And then, on the night of April 30, 1975, at the command of some shadowy party official, they are all shot, butchered, rendered in a machine called “the Destruktor” and turned into sterile pellets to be fed to cattle.
If the novel’s acknowledgments are to be believed, the story is true, and Ledgard investigated the reasons for the slaughter: Ledgard’s day job is as foreign correspondent for the Economist. The explanation he offers for the killings is both convincing and painfully banal. The giraffes were blighted with an unnamed contagion and had to be destroyed before it could spread to agricultural herds. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t make the slaughter any less poignant or dismaying.
The book is full of illuminating information about giraffes; that the Egyptians used a hieroglyph in the shape of a giraffe to indicate prophecy, for example, and that early taxidermists endeavored to make all animals look fierce, but couldn’t succeed in the case of the giraffe. All of this reminded me of Heathcote Williams’s poem “Sacred Elephant,” although English reviewers noted similarities here to Milan Kundera and W. G. Sebald, by which I think they simply meant that the book is set in Eastern Europe and is short on laughs.
The multiple narrators include, in Ledgard’s words, “a hemodynamicist,” “a virologist,” “a sharpshooter,” “a slaughterhouse man,” “a foreign correspondent” and “a somnambulist.” You just know that a somnambulist is going to be trouble. In this case she’s a young bisexual woman who works in a factory making glass Christmas decorations to be sold in the West. The giraffes make her “feel awakened.”
Her prose style, or I suppose stream of consciousness, is as overwrought as a giraffe’s. “Outwardly, there is the din of whiteness injected into a hundred umbilical cords, of snowmen being born. Inwardly, butterflies are rising from a pool in the bog that circles the old town walls, more subtly colored than any pigment mixed into a polish of nitroglycerin.” This strikes me as preposterous. I may not know how a giraffe “thinks,” but when it comes to factory girls I have some experience, and this rings completely false.
The best section of the book, by far, is narrated by Jiri, the sharpshooter, a hunter and in most ways an uncomplicated soul. But even he finds himself appalled and nauseated when called upon to exterminate the giraffes, and he needs to drink in order to do it.
Jiri doesn’t entirely escape Ledgard’s strained ventriloquism (“I feel as an okapi must under a Czechoslovian sky”), but his narrative is moving, fully imagined and restrained, despite the bloody grotesqueness of what he performs and describes. One would have liked more of this.
Elsewhere the book is freighted with references to myth (mermaids, unicorns), literature (“Emil and the Detectives” and “Great Expectations”) and even Dalí’s burning giraffes. Nobody is going to accuse J. M. Ledgard of lack of ambition, and in an age of timid and modest novels this is a virtue. The book is often overwritten and sometimes pretentious, but Ledgard is an interesting and serious writer, and his book remains in the mind, even if you don’t entirely want it to. I was continually reminded of Harold Bloom’s remark about all great books being strange: Ledgard has certainly got half the equation right. I can safely say I’ve never read anything quite like “Giraffe,” and on balance, and it’s a fine balance, I think I mean that as a compliment. -
Geoff Nicholson

Giraffe is based on an actual events, culminating in something awful. This end -- the massacre of the largest herd of giraffes in captivity, almost fifty in all, in a Czechoslovakian zoo in 1975 -- isn't hidden from the reader, at least not by the publishers, who use it as a sort of hook to catch the potential reader's interest (and, in fact, it could possibly be simply too devastating if kept as some sort of surprise to hit the reader with when s/he stumbles upon it in the book). The baffling and seemingly outrageous act does seem to beg the question of what led to it, but Ledgard's book delves far more deeply than merely determining and presenting the (relatively simple) reason for the massacre. He answers larger questions, of what kind of society acts in this way and why, and in doing so impressively presents a portrait of the Soviet-dominated ČSSR of the 1970s, and communist ideology in practise more generally
       Various characters narrate different sections of the book, beginning with Snĕhurka, one of the giraffes. Animal-perspectives are hard to pull off, but Ledgard only briefly resorts to it and for the introductory scenes -- birth, capture -- it's perfectly adequate.
       Most of the book is narrated from Emil Freymann's perspective. He is a haemodynamicist, studying the "blood flow in vertical creatures, in men and giraffes" -- enough to make him as much of a giraffe-specialist as any the Czechoslovak authorities could find. The Czechoslovaks have a big project underway in 1973, and they've captured over thirty giraffes which are being shipped to Europe; Emil is sent to West Germany to pick them up and accompany them on the final barge-journey to their new home. The project is ambitious if also in some way delusional: rather than put a few giraffes on display in some zoo, the authorities want to acclimate an entire herd to this new world, to make them Czech, in essence: they dream of a new breed -- Camelopardlis bohemica, as Emil suggests.
       Emil has never travelled abroad beyond Hungary; West Germany represents a different world. The giraffes, meanwhile, have been taken from their home, and journeyed thousands of miles by ship to reach this new, strange land that is meant to be made theirs. (Impressively, only a single animals dies along the way, an astonishingly low mortality rate compared to similar animal transports.)
       So Giraffe positively drips in symbolism and metaphor. A new society is being formed, regardless of the will of the individuals; ironically, they thrive: a mere two years later there are almost fifty giraffes, and possibly almost half of those put to death are pregnant at the time. For the most part Ledgard handles this well enough: only with a few touches is he trying too hard (that Emil is named after Kästner's boy-detective is fine, but does he also have to be named Freymann ('free-man') ?).
       Occasionally heavy-handed, in a prose that veers to the stilted (a useful alienating effect, but one that might annoy some), Ledgard does very much emphasise that this is a portrait of a society gone wrong. Emil is dutiful, but only because he doesn't have the will to break free. He feels small and subjugated, and he recognises what ails him:
Contemplation of my country is enough to bring on nausea. Not sea-sickness, but land-sickness: I search the horizon for a sea, as a sailor searches for land. I want the meadows to shift under a light swell and the eels to summon up a hurricane from the Sargasso Sea of their memory, that might swing the bells in the church towers.
       Emil does not suffice for all of Ledgard's purposes, so another voice appears: that of Amina, a girl who works in a factory making Christmas decorations, without parents or any real friends. Yes, she's named after the heroine of Bellinni's La Sonnambula -- and, yes, she does a lot of sleepwalking:
I am a sleepwalker by day, as well as by night. I am not often awake to this ČSSR of 1973
       But she diagnoses a variation of it as a national problem:
I am not so different. This is a country of sleepwalkers by day, who drink by night only as a lesser form of sleepwalking. This is a country where the officials say openly they can do whatever they like with it, if they keep the beer flowing. We are hardly any of us evr awake as operatic Amina is awake
       Like Emil, she makes do with her place in this society, understanding what is required and what is allowed:
     The Communist moment does not demand that I love it, or be awake to it. It asks only that I do not question it. What can I question ? I am below politics.
       She is, however, drawn to the giraffes: they awaken her, she says, and she spends two or three afternoons a week among them. She also manages to slip in the zoo when the massacre begins, one of several characters brought in or drawn to witness and partake in an event that officially doesn't happen. There are no records, and everyone is sworn to silence, but from one day to the next (to May Day, as it turns out) the giraffes are gone.
       The conclusion does present certain difficulties, as it's such a horrific event. Ledgard does not shy away from it, describing it in considerable detail, repeating it even from various points of view (others joining Emil's and Amina's). It's possibly as successful as such a scene can be, and yet it's a hard to take contrast with the rest of the novel (Finally, the final brief scene, in which 'foreign correspondent' Steve stumbles upon the story a quarter of a century later (much as, presumably, Ledgard stumbled upon it) also seems out of place.)
       Part of the great appeal of Giraffe is the risks Ledgard is willing to take in presenting the story. Even the completely contrived (such as Amina's name), even a used-to-death fact such as Shakespeare (mis)placing Bohemia on the seashore, work in this novel. The careful construction (the care is apparent, the construction not too obvious) and the willingness to experiment with style (successful far more often than not) make it a very impressive piece of writing.
       As a depiction of the ČSSR of the 1970s -- and of totalitarianism in general -- Giraffe is a great success. Ledgard manages to take this fairly simple episode and, using just a few characters (with little direct contact with the authorities), creates a suggestive picture of the much larger prevailing conditions. It's also a very well-written book -- still with the feel of a writer trying to get his bearings, but at least one who is willing to try out a great deal (and succeeds far more often than not).
       Well worthwhile. -
"(H)is poetic, multilayered prose style can be a distraction as it strives for the enigmatic cool of Kundera. Yet, in the strangeness of the giraffes' short-lived "migration" to Czechoslovakia, Ledgard has found an effective symbol for what he calls "the brief communist moment"." - Elena Seymenliyska, Daily Telegraph

"(A) novel that shrewdly places the bewitching animals against the lifeless backdrop of 1970s Czechoslovakia. The reader, too, is likely to be captivated. (...) Ledgard displays admirable dedication in fictionalising this shameful episode. Giraffe is a work of obvious passion and great skill." - Alex Gibbons, New Statesman

"Giraffe is as laden down with agitprop as anything by Brecht. Pretty much everyone who talks in it says the same thing -- that communism is even less than it’s cracked up to be. Worse, they say it in the same slow, numinous, image-heavy voice. Read aloud at random from the book and you will have no idea who’s talking. This would be a fault in any novel, but in a novel whose specific intent is to make clear the Identikit restrictions of a political system, it spells double trouble. The good news is that, as the novel builds towards its bloody climax, Mr. Ledgard’s pulse quickens, and his prose grows more supple and muscular.(...) Like the communists he despises, Mr. Ledgard should leave the comforts of his ideas and beliefs behind and get to grips with the resistant world." - Christopher Bray, The New York Observer

"(F)lawed but striking (.....) (A)n allegory of the utopian ambitions of communism and their violent miscarriage, as well as a meditation on the unbridgeable gulf between human and animal nature. The abstractness of these ambitious themes does take a toll on Giraffe. By structuring the novel as a series of monologues by a rotating cast of narrators, Mr. Ledgard minimizes the opportunity for his characters to interact. As a result, dialogue and characterization are undernourished, and the book reads more like a series of reveries than a consecutive story." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

"Ledgard combines fine research with lyrical style; his description of a giraffe's astonishingly complex circulatory system is particularly memorable. The use of recurring images -- mermaids, a rusalka (a Slavic water nymph) -- conjures a world of fantasy and menace, balanced between dream and nightmare." - The New Yorker

"His sad, dreamy, multifarious novel serves, however, to remind us how dull, how enslaving, how surreal, how opaque and of course how careless of life were the long years of Russian domination in countries such as Czechoslovakia, a.k.a. the C.S.S.R. Ledgard's mournful yet lovely book evokes that not-so-distant era through a stream of overlapping themes, images, anecdotes, erudition and ironic humor, organized round an unlikely yet actual zoological event (.....) His is a bravura debut, a rich composition with suggestions of steelier Scottish organizational rigor below its mazy surface." - Elsbeth Lindner, San Francisco Chronicle

"(T)he story of the giraffes, and the two narrators' complicity in the slaughter, is compellingly and disturbingly told. (...) His desire to fictionalize historical events while asserting their factual basis tends to compromise Giraffe's metaphysical aims, drawing it inescapably back to the real. There is no denying the chilling success of his description of the slaughter, but the publisher's pre-emptive broadcasting of the climax on the dust jacket disserves a book which dramatically situates itself in a growing body of literature interrogating humanity's place in an animal world." - Patrick Flanery, Times Literary Supplement

“There Is Another World in Our World”: A Conversation with J. M. Ledgard

Some critics have compared J. M. Ledgard’s novels to the writings of W. G. Sebald, Italo Calvino, and J. M. Coetzee. Others have found his books overly cosmic in their preoccupations and ambitions, and too lavishly written. They are, in fact, more original, more singular, and more surprising than either of these camps suggest. The opening pages of his first novel are narrated by a newborn giraffe. That book, “Giraffe,” from 2006, was inspired by a historical massacre of forty-nine captive giraffes in Communist Czechoslovakia, in 1975. Ledgard, a Scot, learned of this episode while based in Prague for his day job—as a foreign correspondent for the Economist. More recently, he was posted in Nairobi as that magazine’s East Africa correspondent, a beat that took him repeatedly to war-blighted Somalia, where much of his second, newly published novel, “Submergence,” takes place. The book’s leading man, James More, is a British spy who is taken captive by jihadi fighters of Al Shabab. Danielle Flinders, his female counterpart—and long-distance lover— occupies what seems an entirely unrelated realm: she is a French-Australian marine biologist who is trying to understand life in the deepest reaches of the ocean. Running separately and together, their stories become dramatic explorations of conditions far larger than their individual destinies—a meditation on our species and our planet at a time heavily shadowed by the prospect of extinction. As Ledgard told me in the course of this interview, conducted by e-mail and over the phone, he writes in part to give expression to the worlds within our world that remain “unknowable and unknown.”
* * *
The two main characters in “Submergence” are a spy who is being held captive by jihadis in Somalia, and a marine biologist. You’re a reporter in East Africa who has worked a lot in and around Somalia, but where does your fascination with oceanography come from?
I was born in the Shetland Islands, in Scotland, so I was bewitched by the ocean from the start. I spent my infancy on a wild and beautiful beach looking out at the Atlantic and breathing it in. When I got older, I messed around on skiffs and worked on fishing boats. In terms of science, what really had an influence was getting on a science expedition to the North Pole—sailing through the Bering Straits—and later being a visiting fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. The professors at Woods Hole, particularly the mathematicians, left me with a wonderment about the scale of life on our world. It was so much bigger and differently distributed than I had known. It was like being made aware of the weight of your own limbs.
On the other side, as you say, I have been an Africa correspondent and I have been lucky to have travelled in Somalia, met with jihadist fighters, and tracked Al Qaeda commanders, so that is a very real and lionhearted place to me, and I wanted to represent it accurately, even if it is meant in my novel to stand for something bigger.
How did you come up with More and Flinders and their very particular stories to carry all that you were thinking about?
Neither of them is based on a real person. But obviously James is based on a lot of research. Working with the Economist, I used to have good contacts with people in the intelligence worlds, in the British Secret Service, and I got a sense of how their life is. That comes from what they tell you, but it’s much more than they can tell you. One bizarre thing that happened with James More is that as I invented this character, basing him slightly on some intelligence people I have known, it came to my attention that there was this French Spy, Denis Allex, a real French Secret Service agent, who was captured in Somalia and held in exactly the same circumstances that I had imagined and described for James More. So I kept up with his story to see how would it turn out—and, not to give too much away, what happened to James More really happens, and I think that gives it an additional kind of gravity.
We have, in Western Civilization, an intellectual inheritance, an inheritance of jurisprudence, that we kind of need in order to know what we stand for—not in a rah-rah way, but in an internal way. And for me, James More is a character who really draws out what it means to be able to examine your beliefs, what it means to have the freedom to really challenge your beliefs.
With Danielle, too, I had a sense of the world she came from. I met a lot of oceanographers and mathematicians, and from them I think I drew her sense of exploration. There is even something kind of heroic about her. I mean, she’s tough, and a little bit cold—I’m not sure she’s entirely sympathetic—but the discoveries that she’s making are colossal in terms of time and space. And, not to hammer it, but her name, Flinders, means shatters, and there was some sense for me of her shattering the truth. I think she even says she is opening up another world in our world, which again is a reflection on our rational empirical inheritance.
You say Danielle is heroic but perhaps not entirely sympathetic. It seems a couple of your jihadi characters, James More’s captors, are obviously no heroes, but you imagine them sympathetically.
You have to acknowledge their humanity, even as they’re being barbaric in all senses of the word. It’s one of the lessons I learned long ago, reporting in the post-Communist environment in Russia and Eastern Europe. I became a really strong anti-Communist at that point, just seeing what that world was and had done. But, after a while, you get into these stories and you realize people whom you see as totally different have all these other characteristics, and you’re able to find points of deep connection even with people you disdain.
I remember this one moment in northern Somalia quite distinctly. I was interviewing a very extreme jihadist-sympathizing mullah in the backroom of his mosque. You can imagine the room: carpet on the floor, it’s dark and dusty, and on the carpet is this guy pronouncing fire and brimstone and the end of times for diabolical America, and behind him on the wall in a frame was a sura of the Koran and a picture of bin Laden in finger-wagging mode. And then there was this picture of Thierry Henry, the Arsenal player. So there he is pronouncing how he’s going to lay low the Western world, and then he’s asking me will his beloved Arsenal win the league.
I’m sure these Chechen brothers in Boston are even more entangled in this kind of impossible interplay. What it comes down to is that it’s a complete nonsense to think you can strip an adversary, however much a barbarian, of humanity. The fact that these are real and serious adversaries tells you they have a system, and structures, a purpose and complexity. We need to understand that. And it always struck me, too, in Somalia, that they are really just incredibly tough. They knew what they’d gotten into, they were in it, and that’s it. They fight until they drop.
And how did you come to think of entwining the seemingly unrelated worlds of a hostage submerged in the slipstream of current events, and of a scientist submerged in biological time?
“Submergence” is an attempt at what I would call planetary writing, which is not the same as nature writing, it’s more political, more discarnate. Somalia here is scorched and hard, but it is also mutable and passing, and the same is true for the pain and the beliefs in the novel. So there is on the surface a narrative where human lives are played out and they matter so very much and are insignificant all at once. Whereas the ocean is confounding in another way, you have no breath in it, no light, and consequently no imaginable human life, yet it is immutable, and when you stack it up you find it is nearly all of the living space on the planet. What I wanted to do was to alter the reader’s perspective of Earth, to show that dirt is precious but seawater dominates, to step out on a field is rare while to float and scintillate with bioluminescence is common.
You take on these planetary conditions, but the action in the book is very confined in space and time. We enter most expansively into your cosmic preoccupations through the claustrophobia of cramped captivity in Somali hideaways, and of the deep dive in the cockpit of the submersible.
What is true of space is also true of time on our planet. East Africa is the cradle of our species: our primal fears, our hopes, our understanding of light and shadow, fire, rain, star maps, the quest for immortality. It was only six hundred thousand years ago that the common ancestors of every human who is not African waded across the narrows of the Red Sea to Arabia, and from there to every point on the planet. In this sense, we are all Africans now. But the chemosynthetic life forms swarming in the cracks of rock on the seafloor exceed the mass of all life on land. They are ancient. The archaea, for instance, without thought, almost without sensation, has evolved for perhaps 3.8 billion years. That kind of stability asks questions of our species. We are fragile by comparison as a species—miraculous, yes, but tottering.
At one point, you write of the spy: “His mind was supple, the mind of a future head of intelligence, who believed the greatest service he could offer in the complicated present was to help people catch up emotionally with where they stood historically.” Do you think it would be fair to say that this is also the greatest service that a writer can offer? Or, put differently, is this the service you seek to offer?
I stand by that description for intelligence officers, at least the better ones, but I don’t see that as a description of my writing. I’m interested in taking something familiar and showing how strange it is and how it sparkles. My first novel, “Giraffe,” was about the strangeness of wild animals with whom we cohabit the world. With “Submergence,” I have gone one step beyond. My next book, which is still notional, will take another step.
There’s a lot of nonfiction, or a lot of writing that carries a spirit of non-fictional inquiry—scientific data, arcane historical lore, literary and theological allusion —on nearly every page of the book, which makes it a very rich read. What is it that you value most that fiction allows you that reportorial writing does not?
It’s freedom to roam, to draw much longer loops of thought, and to use an adjective.
No adjectives—the Economist writer speaks.
My editor used to say you’re allowed one adjective a piece. But obviously literature is a slow burn. While great journalism speaks essentially to the moment, literature has the long reach. It’s a bit random what survives and what doesn’t, but I think of Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons”—a mid-nineteenth-century novel from Russia, and it is still so incredibly relevant. So literature really allows for the big themes, and we should take them on. I find it a bit disappointing that so much contemporary novel writing doesn’t. Think about what’s happened in the past twenty years, since the end of the Cold War—the technological revolution, the doubling of the world population, the rise of China, the extinction of thousands of species. I’m not saying that literature should be a polemic. But if literary fiction is reduced to only middle-class families dealing only with middle-class angst, then it’s really finished as a force for grappling with the world.
To me, the world is inherently mysterious, even like a fairy tale, sometimes a happy fairy tale, sometimes a very dark one. But that wonderment is what I’m after. Nonfiction may not be able to get at that cosmic unknowable and unknown aspect.
You are, to borrow the title of one of my country’s great pop songs, the son of a preacher man, and references to religious thought, and concrete explorations of the spiritual dimensions of the political and scientific dramas you tell, run through the book. Above all, you seem to be asking whether the human species is doomed to make itself extinct—or, put differently, whether we can survive.
Yes, it’s unfashionable, but I really do look up to some of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English religious men and metaphysical poets. A part of it is their use of the English language, but a lot is the power, immediacy, and humor with which they approached vital questions: Who am I? Where and to whom and to what am I beholden? What is my span? I especially like the Anglicans, who balanced the hereafter with a devotion to the here and now (a parish church in a damp village). But I think the exposure to death in Africa and the consequent intensity of life there—both maggoty and reanimating—is oddly reflective of conditions in early modern England. Of course, John Milton never had to consider the future of species and Isaac Newton never had to parse the data on climate change. We are living in a time that is easier but also graver, where the urgency lies not in saving your soul but in saving a diversity of life.
Can you explain concretely how you see the connection between the story of one man in captivity in Somalia, and of the depletion of the planet, and particularly of the seas, by human beings collectively?
With the depletion of the seas, it is a case of out of sight out of mind. This needs a different conversation, but I’ll just cite the destruction of sharks in the Western Indian Ocean as one example of how terrible the situation has become. Sharks are critical for the food pyramid in tropical coral reef systems and they are being fished out for their fins, which go for soup in China. It is beyond barbarous. So I can’t answer your question exactly, except by reemphasizing that we need a clearer sense of what is our place on Earth.
“Submergence” then juxtaposes land with ocean and enlightenment with fanaticism. I felt impelled to write it in this way, but it is odd, I can see that. But sometimes life is even odder. It was the strangest moment for me when Osama bin Laden was killed and buried at sea. Everything came together in the abyss. I have often thought about it since, not just bin Laden’s weighted corpse sinking down to the sea floor, but also the processes done on his body, the creatures, the crushing dark, and that’s what I am talking about—there is another world in our world. -

Interview with J. M. Ledgard at Fiction Advocate


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