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the Complete Review
the complete review - non / fiction

The Last Window-Giraffe

Zilahy Péter

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Last Window-Giraffe

Title: The Last Window-Giraffe
Author: Zilahy Péter
Genre: Primer
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 117 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: The Last Window-Giraffe - US
The Last Window-Giraffe - UK
The Last Window-Giraffe - Canada
Die letzte Fenstergiraffe - Deutschland
  • A Picture Dictionary for the Over Fives
  • Hungarian title: Az utolsó ablakzsiráf
  • Translated by Tim Wilkinson
  • Foreword by Lawrence Norfolk
  • With numerous illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B+ : colourful and creative snapshot of an Eastern European moment

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FASz . 12/12/2004 Volker Weidermann
FAZ . 31/12/2004 Tilman Spreckelsen
The Independent . 7/4/2008 Philip Oltermann
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 6/11/2004 Paul Jandl
The Telegraph . 29/3/2008 Tibor Fischer
Die Welt . 6/11/2004 Michael Pilz
Die Zeit . 3/3/2005 Karl-Markus Gauß

  From the Reviews:
  • "So liest jeder seine eigene Geschichte in diesem Buch. Etwas Besseres kann man über Literatur kaum sagen." - Volker Weidermann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Wo er kann, setzt Zilahy das Erlebte in Bezug zur jüngeren Geschichte östlich des Eisernen Vorhangs, ohne sich je auf eine knappe Kausalität festzulegen (solche Konstruktionen veralbert er lieber); Historie wird ihm zur Folie, vor der sich das unmittelbar Erlebte als Einzelfall abhebt. Und so ist sein Buch, allen Arabesken zum Trotz, im Kern ein großes Lied auf einen friedlichen Revolutionswinter" - Tilman Spreckelsen, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The alphabet is the only reliable system of order in The Last Window-Giraffe. The rest is a tour of Shandyian digressions, with Zilahy's narrator time-travelling from one decade of political turmoil to the next. Deceptively innocent children's-book illustrations and the author's snapshots illustrate the journey. That feature, and the rambling narrative, bring to mind the writing of WG Sebald; but unlike his Germanic counterpart, Zilahy finds it hard to keep a straight face while pondering history's absurdities." - Philip Oltermann, The Independent

  • "This is an unusual mixture of essay and reportage, structured in the form of brief alphabetical entries, musing on the history of Central Europe and the Balkans, which culminates in the demonstrations in Belgrade that brought down Milosevic. (...) Zilahy writes with clarity and economy, but many of his reflections and allusions will be wasted on readers who don't have some grasp of the region and its past." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

  • "Das sind Sätze, die beschreiben, wie die Menschen nicht nur auf dem Balkan fühlen. Sondern überall, wo Wahrheiten verschwanden, wo sich neue Wahrheiten in Aussicht stellten, ohne bisher einzutreffen. Euphorie und Kränkung, seltsame Verlustgefühle, schwejkscher Fatalismus, Freude am Anarchischen." - Michael Pilz, Die Welt

  • "Selten erweist sich so drastisch, wie bei Zilahys abenteuerlicher Verbindung von historischen Exkursen, Randglossen zum Zeitgeschehen, persönlichen Notizen, Erinnerungen an die Geister und Gespenster der Kindheit, Reportage, Erfindung, Gedankenspiel, Wörterbuch, dass die Unterscheidung von Sachbuch und Belletristik obsolet geworden ist. So soll noch einmal ein Bild der ganzen Welt erstehen, wenn auch mittels der formal zwingend vermittelten Einsicht, dass dieses Ganze nur mehr in Splittern, Fetzen, Bruchstücken zu haben ist. Diese freilich fügen sich mitunter wundersam zusammen." - Karl-Markus Gauß, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In The Last Window-Giraffe Hungarian author Zilahy describes going to Belgrade in the winter of 1996, as the former Yugoslavia made the next transition to the post-Communist era -- a much more messy affair than in most of the Eastern European countries, as what was Yugoslavia disintegrated into different states, prolonging the agony of change.
        The Last Window-Giraffe is not, however, a straighforward account; instead, Zilhay has chosen a very rigid and artificial framework around which to present it -- that 'Window-Giraffe' of the title. The Hungarian words for 'window' and 'giraffe' are 'ablak' and 'zsiráf', respectively, and are the first and last words of a school-primer for young children, a famous Hungarian ABC:

The Window-Giraffe was a picture book from which we learned to read when we didn't know how. I already knew how by then, but I had to learn anyway, because what else was school for.
       An ABC also defines and explains, and Zilahy repeatedly refers to and quotes from the basic Window-Giraffe in his own last variation. But he's less concerned with specific word-definitions than conveying a larger sense of conditions; the ABC gives some structure to the text (and imposes some limitations, though Zilahy barely lets himself be constrained). More than anything it's a reminder of the artificiality and arbitrariness of any order -- all the more so considering most of what he describes is the curious mix of chaos and order of the Belgrade of that time.
       Zilahy also notes:
If the US is a human melting pot, then Eastern Europe is a scrap yard. There -- a little of everything, here -- not enough of anything.
       To describe a scrap yard in an ABC-primer is, of course, to want to find (or make) some sort of order there. But Zilahy also wants to make sure the reader doesn't see it (and, by extension, the world he is describing) as entirely a set-in-stone piece: "This book is all about choices."
       The mass-protests in Belgrade that he takes part in and describes would have been unthinkable in Communist times, yet there is a sense of uncertainty, as roles and expectations aren't clear-cut any longer. There's a sense that everyone is just going through the motions, Belgrade just a laggard on the East European scene where everyone else went through this a few years earlier and the final outcome is more or less inevitable anyway. So:
The cops chat amiably with old partisans, joke with students, show girls their gas masks. Five minutes later they send them running in all directions: an order had come in over the radio. An invisible hand twirls a rubber truncheon, pressing my head against the wall. Then, just as suddenly the cordon melts away. There's no knowing if they're heading somewhere else, or just that the daily allowance has run out, since they are paid by the hour.
       It's all one big show:
The set keeps changing, the props get broken or replaced, no two performances are alike. Everybody is actor and audience in one. Due to the size of the stage, no-one can take in the entire show, only excerpts, a never-ending dress rehearsal of a work-in-progress, a revolution which never reaches its dramatic climax, constant suppression, delayed ejaculation, a city on the verge of orgasm.
       For Zilahy Belgrade is an opportunity to re-live the transition Hungary underwent a few years earlier, to be in a society that has not yet abandoned the past entirely but rather is in that limbo between old and new. And, as his reliance on the primer from his childhood, the Window-Giraffe, suggests the past isn't easy to let go of. He finds: "Nostalgia as a sine qua non" -- and to some extent he revels in it, as when:
I'm having a drink with a Croat and a Bosnian and my two Serb mates. We converse in English and swear in our respective mother tongues. We reminisce about a sunken country where the stars were red, the girls were roses, the young men were fiery, and the mountain goatherds swifter than mountain goats.
       A good deal of his account also focusses on the past, personal and historical. Born in 1970, the uprising of 1956 is distant history for him, and his experiences -- shaped in a world made possible by that brief burst of opposition -- are less of overwhelming oppression than a dark (and dank) sort of hovering shadow. And so, for example, he notes:
The only Russian soldiers I saw were in war films, and even they were dubbed into Hungarian. The first time I saw them in the flesh was when they withdrew from Hungary.
       He's also come to Belgrade because of a sense of not getting it entirely right in Budapest, one imagines, as he writes:
Our teenage rebellion swept Communism away, the new soft democracy crowded out the old soft dictatorship. The era that had treated us like children and held us back from growing up suddenly collapsed and vanished into thin air. And I stopped growing. My generation had supposed things would carry on as before, which they didn't, but we carried on pretending to be the way they had always wanted us to be.
       The Last Window-Giraffe has apparently resonated particularly strongly with readers from the rest of the former Soviet bloc, and that's presumably because it captures what was a near-universal local experience so well, a transition that is monumental and yet oddly anti-climactic, and an uncertainty that leaves a strong longing for much that has been abandoned. It's particularly effective in that Zilahy writes from the perspective of someone who has been through the experience (in Hungary), as re-visiting it in this way allows him to better digest and relate it. History does not completely repeat itself as farce here, but Zilahy can clearly see it more dispassionately than those in the middle of it -- even as he also still feels all their passion, and can wax nostalgically about his (and Hungary's) past.
       Richly illustrated, the text printed in two columns to the page, the text-breaks determined by the alphabet, in The Last Window-Giraffe Zilahy goes to great lengths that it not to look (and hence also read) like your usual work of fiction or account. But despite the pictures and the primer-foundation, it also is not presented as any sort of basic or childish text; indeed, the print is very dense and the book itself -- printed on solid-stock paper -- literally weighty.
       The Last Window-Giraffe is a book of a particular moment (albeit one that extends from 1989 through at least Ukraine's orange revolution of a few years ago) and geographic area (even as Zilahy occasionally aims for the more-universal ("Amateur footage shows a man's head being repeatedly kicked. Burma ? Biafra ? Belgrade ?")). A creative take on that, it is certainly of some interest and appeal. And it's a very good-looking book, too.

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The Last Window-Giraffe: Reviews: Zilahy Péter: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian aithor Zilahy Péter was born in 1970.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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