Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve
A title such as The Rome Zoo merely hints at, but does not reflect, the range and compelling nature of this wonderful novel. The history of modern Italy, the relevance of the zoo, the concept of caging animals, all are touched upon in a clever, sometimes ironic, and brilliant manner. There is a love story, the amusing antics of Italians pursuing their goals, the devotion of an ageing zoo keeper and the poet who chooses a security job at a zoo in order to read and write poetry.
In a book which is slightly more than 200 pages, Pascal Janovjak considers a fascinating collection of themes against the zoo’s construction in early twentieth century Rome and sweeping to recent times.
He introduces an imaginary animal (research proves it is indeed fictitious.) The tamandin, called Oscar, is a small scaly creature resembling an anteater. It is the last of its species, shy and lonely. Oscar becomes a symbol of the current world’s obsession with marketable objects. His fame revives the flagging fortune of the zoo. Visitors flock to stand and stare at the small exhibit hiding behind a bush. His attraction soars as does commercial exploits. Documentaries and cartoons are made, his shape appears on countless objects, including balloons, cakes, t-shirts, back-packs and fluffy toys of many sizes.
The chaotic beginnings in the zoo’s construction echo the political unrest of Italy. Mussolini appears on the scene and is the new manager. He later becomes the country’s leader. Pascal, French, and now residing in the Middle East, cannot resist the delightful implication of this….
Janovjak’s wit continually enhances the plot. An early director of the zoo is “an expert in the banalities and Calabrian wine” – qualifications indeed! Fritz, the great brown bear, is taught to give the Fascist salute when given a treat. He is a celebrity, even the invading Germans loved his trick! Chahine, an architect, whimsically considers that, for a zoo, measurement should be in animals. Giraffes for height, gorillas for width and seals for volume.
The mood often resembles a Fellini film. It can be joyously enthusiastic, surprising, outrageous, honestly mirroring human foibles.
Characters are sketchy yet memorable. Chahine is a shadowy and tragic figure; Giovanna, the zoo’s marketing manager, is bewitched by Chahine; Moro, the Vet, attempts to end the suffering of zoo animals; and Salvatore, the old keeper, the tamandin’s only friend, endures a sad fate.
In a masterly manner, fact and fiction are entwined – one of the author’s most impressive skills. One example of this in his book is the documentary ‘The Mad Zoo’ which was the impetus for the growth of the anti-zoo movement. The movement exists, so does Fellini’s brother, Ricardo, but he never made the fictional documentary.
Some modern novels, longer in length, say little of import. The Rome Zoo, lightened by wit, offers some crucial questions to answer, particularly concerning animals and the environment created by man. Pascal suggests that all that endures is unwritten and mankind has failed to dominate the animal kingdom, because its members simply do not seek meaning, so, in their way, are truly free.
Janovjak’s writing talents are obvious. His spellbinding work has been brought to English readers by this fine Stephanie Smee translation. Without her excellent work, we would not be seduced by this poignant, powerful and philosophical novel.
This is a rare book for many reasons. Europeans have awarded it prizes, deservedly so.
Exceptional too, in that The Rome Zoo is a book that would invariably be re-read with joyful anticipation.
The Rome Zoo
by Pascal Janovjak
ISBN 978 17606 4275 4