06. 04. 2008. 08:30

Coming of age in Central Europe in the 90s

Péter Zilahy: The Last Window-Giraffe

A dazzling collage of styles that evokes the tremendous heterogeneity of the contemporary cultural landscape of Central Europe, The Last Window-Giraffe is a foray into the common heritage and current aspirations shared by the people of this elusive yet ineluctable region. 

The Last Window-Giraffe, the tale of Péter Zilahy’s venture into Serbia during the surge of protests against Miloševic in 1996–98, is a poignant yet jocular depiction of a region caught in a maelstrom of calamities in the years following the close of the epochal Cold War confrontation of East and West. Masquerading as a postmodern experiment with genre the likes of which have become familiar in the global literary marketplace, it is really a profoundly personal narrative that interweaves musings on history and the events surrounding the break-up of Yugoslavia with the story of the narrator’s coming of age in the last decades of communist rule. A dazzling collage of styles that evokes the tremendous heterogeneity of the contemporary cultural landscape of Central Europe, it is a foray into the common heritage and current aspirations shared by the people of this elusive yet ineluctable region.
The title refers to a primer used across Hungary in Zilahy’s childhood the first word of which was ablak (window) and the last zsiráf (giraffe). The narrative is broken into entries prefaced with lists of words that develop parallels while at the same time playing with the contingencies and coincidences of language. The word ágyak (beds), for instance, is followed by ágyék (crotch). “A meeting-place which raises the accidental to the status of law” (86–88), the primer implies order, but this order turns out to be a pretense as flimsy as the pretense of order to which those living under the dictatorships of Central Europe were expected to pay lip service. Digressions prevail, and the narrative is a rich mixture of erudition, political clichés, reportage, schoolboy humor, historical narrative, historical narrative retold as schoolboy humor, and numerous other guises and poses none of which usurps the others. The blunt didacticism of citations from the primer, which are interspersed throughout the narrative, serves as a reminder of the transparent attempts at indoctrination of the regime under which Zilahy grew up, whether through references to the five-pointed red star and red flag as emblems of the working class or the simple directive “being afraid is bad, being happy is good” (80).
The adoption of an encyclopedic framework might remind one of Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars or the less internationally familiar Por (Dust) by Zilahy’s countryman Ferenc Temesi. However, this aspect of The Last Window-Giraffe should not be overemphasized. Whereas the structure of Pavic’s work allowed a beguiled international readership to sever it from its historical context and read it primarily as a work of meta-fiction, Zilahy’s narrative is firmly anchored in place and time by its very title. History is presented as an endless game of charades, from nationalist posturing to the vapid homilies of communist rhetoric, but its permutations are interwoven into the personal lives of its actors. The milestones of the narrator’s growth to sexual maturity are marked by the passing of communist dictators and heroes of the wars with the Turks are fodder for crass schoolyard jokes. The events of the novel unfold in a blend of styles that vividly depicts the predicament of a region struggling simultaneously to transcend and retain its history. The strains of national epics grate against the sassy backtalk of student protesters. Ironic contrasts abound, both in the primer entries, the prose narrative, and the sumptuous illustrations drawn from diverse sources. A snapshot of a policeman in riot gear distractedly kicking a yellow ball (89) is no less expressive of the absurdity of the tragic wars and their aftermath than the cartoon on the next page depicting the shelled bridge in Mostar with two crippled soldiers standing on either side.
Suspicious of ideology and overviews, Zilahy eschews generalizations and focuses instead on the overflow of details that brings the region and its inhabitants to life. His eye for the odd incongruity discerns the myriad contradictions of life in Belgrade, from the rabid nationalism of its leaders to the urbane and flamboyantly international wit of the students (who in their utter isolation from the so-called West appropriate its culture as part of their protests, for instance with buttons reading “And now for something completely different, Belgrade, 1996–97”). But the book is as much about Central Europe as it is about Belgrade, the shared legacies of communism and separation from the West and the strategies of insinuation and inference developed under dictatorships. Zilahy accomplishes the rare feat of capturing the dilemmas common to the peoples of the region. Ultimately The Last Window-Giraffe is a celebration of the irrepressible cultures of contemporary Central Europe, capable of adopting and adapting influences from across the globe in their continuous reinvention of themselves.

Péter Zilahy: The Last Window-Giraffe: A Picture Dictionary for the Over Fives
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
London–New York–Delhi: Anthem Press, 2008

Thomas Cooper

Tags: Péter Zilahy