Cover of book: The Rome Zoo

Pascal Janovjak (translated by Stephanie Smee)
The Rome Zoo

“I’m going to tell you something, it’s something I’ve worked out over all the years,” the elderly zookeeper Salvatore Leonardi confides to his director towards the end of The Rome Zoo. “People who go to zoos all the time, there’s always something wrong with them.” It’s hard to know precisely how to take this: Salvatore has witnessed all kinds of strange behaviour – amorous, rapturous, ignorant, cruel – towards the animals he has tended across his life, just as his father did before him. He is a known storyteller and a keen observer of the world around him. But he is also – like the director herself – an employee of the Rome Zoo and as such, a person who goes there almost every day. Salvatore’s words are interesting in the way in which they touch upon precisely what is at the heart of Pascal Janovjak’s dream-like novel: the shifting symbolic and ideological uses to which humans have put animals over the past century and the changing ways in which we have imagined their subjectivity and the relationships we share.

This is work that is always done allusively, through small and interwoven stories of individual animals and people and a sweeping history that simultaneously runs across the book. The Rome Zoo is split across two time lines: one is set in the current century, and this follows a more conventional (if fantastic) narrative arc. The other begins “as the twentieth century dawns” and the zoo in Rome is brought into existence. The narrative here is much looser and charts the significant events, as well as the changes in purpose and prosperity, that have happened in and to the zoo across the first hundred years of its existence. In this time line, in particular, the zoo serves as a microcosm, always affected by the political and cultural forces at work in Europe across this century of great turmoil and change.

The founding of the zoo, Janovjak writes, takes place at a time when Italy is “annoyed at the sight of [its] neighbours carving up the world between them”, and serves as a reminder of the empire whose “return” they still await – the wild animals the zoo houses standing in for the lands from which they come, owned and contained and on display. With the rise of Fascism in Italy, the zoo becomes a symbol of the country’s “virility” and is expanded as a result. Mussolini names a lioness Italia, a brown bear is taught the Fascist salute, and the zoo’s architect visits the institution’s counterpart in Munich, where biologists are attempting to “bring back” the auroch and tarpan, extinct and now almost-mythical creatures that he describes as “pure” and “true Europeans”.

By the middle of the century, the zoo houses animals retired from the film sets of Hollywood; in the 1960s it becomes a focus of animal liberation movements and documentarians. Human history and human culture always affect these animals – in the very material terms of the conditions in which they are kept but also in the way they are seen and imagined. So often, the symbolic weight with which they are unwittingly burdened does them real harm.

The narrative that plays out alongside this historical reckoning is, ostensibly at least, more human: it centres on an Algerian architect, Chahine, who is in Rome on business, and Giovanna, the new director of the zoo who understands completely that the new role she has been assigned is considered a poisoned chalice by the city’s government. Chahine and Giovanna, misfits both, meet by accident in the zoo’s grounds and quickly strike up a strange friendship. They are never quite able to understand each other – Giovanna, for example, often mistakes for imagination things that Chahine describes as fact – but their relationship is charged with an undercurrent of desire, and this – as well as the fact that it plays out in a largely empty zoo – lends it an enchantment that they both need. Alongside this romance also sit a crime, a corporate intrigue, a tragedy and an ever-escalating farce. The latter involves the last remaining specimen of a rare variety of anteater now housed within this very zoo, suddenly transforming the place into the attraction it was always intended to be – albeit one that can only last as long as its star creature survives.

Both time lines are told in short vignettes, lyrical and dense, and with Janovjak’s narrator constantly moving from the very small scale (small details such as the sensation of Chahine’s wet socks inside his shoes) to something sweeping, declarative or cosmic. Few of the fragments are longer than two or three pages and the time frames and perspectives never remain stable. As the book progresses, its shifting between  past and present and narrative genres gains momentum; occasionally, the different time lines and narratives begin to bleed into each other. The effect of this is wonderfully dizzying but somehow never disorienting. For all of the instability at the heart of the text, Janovjak’s control over the form and the material is impressive.

One of the pleasures of The Rome Zoo is that it is so difficult a book to categorise – it is at once fantastical, historical and allegorical, alternately poetic and almost schlocky, tender and hopeful but also cynical and cruel. In this sense it has a wildness that is particularly fitting: to think through what is untameable and unknowable about animals, the ways in which they “evade human domination”, even in the strange and liminal space of an inner-city zoo. It has an eerie timeliness too, speaking as it does to the changing climate and the mass extinctions that this is likely to cause, and the awareness of our physical interrelatedness with animals – and their mutating viruses – that the current zoonotic pandemic has heightened. It’s a rich and multilayered book that easily immerses the reader into the details of its world, real and imagined all at once.

Fiona Wright

Black Inc, 240pp, $27.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 21, 2021 as "The Rome Zoo, Pascal Janovjak (translated by Stephanie Smee)".

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