Men As Zebras
In August, I had the honour of appearing on a panel with Sjón, the brilliant – in the old-fashioned, glitteringly genius sense of the word – Icelandic writer at Edinburgh International Book Festival. Sjón’s novel CoDex 1962 has been translated (equally brilliantly) by Victoria Cribb for Sceptre. It’s hard to tell you what CoDex 1962 is about, because it’s capacious enough to fit in every known genre, and a few more besides, in a feast of storytelling traditions. But I can say it’s about a man called Leo, who escapes the Nazis, smuggling out a lump of clay that will become his son in 1962, ripened by Nuclear energy – from one grand narrative of the twentieth century to another. Sjón’s entrancing writing came back to me last week on safari, in a moment that initially seemed disconnected.
I was lucky enough to spend a few days in the Maasai Mara, Kenya. My partner, Nick, grew up in Kenya, and this was my first time seeing the country that formed his childhood. Our Maasai guide, Josephat, was born in the Mara. He told us its stories as we joined the straggling columns of the great migration. Though Josephat explained how very intelligent zebras are, something about these animals filled me with that fond love reserved for comical relatives. Maybe it’s their name: so few sensible things begin with a Z. Maybe it’s their stripes: ink thrown merrily into the air.
Either way, the zebras made me laugh, until I felt the incongruous chill of a passing shadow in the thirty-degree heat. I was reminded, suddenly, of striped pyjamas, and bruised skin. I remembered CoDex 1962. There is a remarkable moment, in this remarkable book – which took over twenty years to write – in which we hear a ‘tale of prison-camp life’: ‘the story of the zebra people.’
We are told: ‘Turning a man into a zebra is not as far-fetched a process as it may sound.’ The first time our narrator sees a ‘man in our prison who had metamorphosed into a zebra’, the inmate seems at first to be ‘an unrecognisable creature’. The men ‘compared notes’ – and once ‘every possibility has been considered, it became clear to us that what we had seen was, yes, incredible though it may seem, a zebra. … The creature appeared vividly before our minds’ eye: the protruding mouth, black hooves like clenched fists, and the dark stripes on its flesh, yes, what were they? For my part, it was the swollen abdomen and sleepless eyes that I noticed we shared with the animal.’ The men ‘stole glances at each other and at parts of our own bodies. You see, we were beginning to realise what the Germans had been plotting. We were all in one way or another marked by their plan to turn us into zebras, we all showed signs that the transformation had begun.’
Remembering this startling passage, I was put in mind of another work of art to take in the twentieth century and its epochal narratives – Mad Men. Michael Ginsberg, the only Jewish copywriter in the ad agency, is working late one night with Peggy. He tells her he’s from Mars.
‘It’s fine if you don’t believe me,’ he says, ‘but that’s where I’m from. I’m a full-blooded Martian. Don’t worry, there’s no plot to take over Earth. I’m just displaced.’
Peggy laughs nervously. ‘OK.’
Michael says he can tell she doesn’t believe him, but that’s alright. ‘They even tried to hide it from me. That man, my “father”, told me a story was I was born in a concentration camp, but you know that’s impossible. And I never met my mother because she supposedly died there.’ The snort of a conspiracy theorist. ‘That’s convenient.’
Softly, Peggy asks him: ‘Are there others like you?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find any.’
I’m just displaced. This scene brings the loneliness of Survivors into a new light for me, helping me see the Holocaust – which I’ve lived with in my family all my life, and spent six years researching in service of my novel Testament– afresh. Ginsberg is so displaced and isolated, so robbed of family and home, that he’s literally and metaphorically an alien. The scene is defamiliarising, as are Sjón’s zebras: the men so dehumanised by their brutalisers, they become inhuman.
In the language of literary criticism, defamiliarisation is ‘the distinct effect achieved by literary works in disrupting our habitual perception of the world, enabling us to “see” things afresh.’ (Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms.) This, to me, is one of the greatest powers of art. It disrupts, unsettles, recasts, makes new. Art is a child’s busy feet at the bottom of a river, disturbing the sediment. It resists the fixity of familiarity. The erasure.
But before you worry about me – I did also really enjoy the zebras.
Kim Sherwood is a novelist and essayist. Her debut novel, Testament (riverrun, 2018), is about the impact of the Holocaust on three generations of a family, spanning from 1944 in Hungary to London in the present-day. @kimtsherwood