Le zoo de Rome – a charming novel intertwining reality and fiction, written by Pascal Janovjak

A year ago, in May 2019, Pascal Janovjak gave me his book “le zoo de Rome” (1) with the following words: “Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

Let me tell you more about this beautiful novel that evoked memories of “my” zoos, that taught me much about the zoo of Rome integrated in the history of the XXth century and that made me enjoy the related fictional story lines.

 

Prologue: “Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories; it might evoke yours as well

“Le zoo de Rome” evoked memories of “my” zoos in Basel (Zolli) and in Karlsruhe (Stadtgarten). You may have such memories as well.

At kindergarten age, in the 1950’s, my grand-ma invited me to the Stadtgarten in Karslruhe, whereby I was very cautious, when being confronted with animals.

Some ten years later, our teacher took us to the Basel Zolli to practice drawing animals; “my” pelicans and “my” penguin are from that time.

As a student, I took photos in the Basel Zolli and developed them in the kitchen-darkroom. The black-and-white polar bear is resting calmly on its paw on a frosty-cold winter day.

No more polar bears in the Basel Zolli today. However, polar bears still live in the Stadtgarten of Karlsruhe, in their “icebergs” built in 2000 (colour photos taken in 2009). A hundred years ago, the Swiss Urs Eggenschwyler created an iceberg in the zoo of Rome; it will play a role in Pascal’s novel.

Now I go to the Basel Zolli with my grandniece and grandnephew. They very much like the flamingos – or flamands in French. The “lagoon” is near the main entrance of the zoo.

Pascal also seems to like flamingos. He has selected this flamingo for the cover of his book.

My “le zoo de Rome” shows signs of use… I have read it three times and I have read it with great pleasure.

 

“Le zoo de Rome” is a puzzle of essays telling intertwined stories: My summary in a nutshell

Pascal tells his novel “le zoo de Rome” as a puzzle of small essays (two to four pages long) rolling out intertwined story lines. The real story of the zoo of Rome starts shortly before 1911 (construction and inauguration), ends in 2013 (two years after the centenary) and interacts with the historical events of one century.

Superimposed to the real history of the zoo, I identified fictional story lines that begin in 1940, focus on 2009/2010 and end in 2013.

  • The first fiction is the life of the architect Chahine Gharbi (born in 1970) and his tender love story with Giovanna Di Stefano. Chahine comes to Rome in December 2009, because a sponsor from Riyad has asked him to evaluate the project of a shopping city to replace the zoo. Chahine orders his room until 16th of January 2010. Mid-January, he has to leave his hotel room, as his sponsor has stopped paying for it. He lives in the iceberg for some time and leaves with unknown destination in May 2010.
    Chahine and Giovanna meet in the zoo. They are both about 40 years old. Their love culminates end-January or beginning-February 2010, when they make love in the zoo.
  • The second fiction is the saga of the family Leonardi that worked as guards from grandfather to grandson Salvatore. Salvatore was born in 1949 (there was rinderpest in the zoo then). Salvatore works with engagement for his animals and imagines the zoo being Noah’s Ark and himself being the captain. Salvatore meets Giovanna and Chahine several times. He is the guard of the last tamandin anteater, until sent to retirement in July 2010 – which leads over to the third fiction.
  • The third fiction is about the last tamandin anteater (a fictional animal) alluding to criminal energy and overtourism. During the war, in 1940, the zoo takes over his first tamandin from another zoo. In November 2009, the veterinarian Moro of the zoo of Rome kills the two tamandins in the London zoo. By doing so, he achieves that the old tamandin anteater of the zoo of Rome, Oscar, is the last representative of this species. For the zoo, so far having attracted only few visitors, the last surviving tamandin changes everything. Visitors flood the zoo. They are channelled to the Grande Volière (aviary), where the animal lives. It is a hype, which Giovanna supports with her marketing actions.
    Meanwhile, the veterinarian of the London zoo, Nadia Monk, finds out that Moro has thrown infected ticks into the cages of her tamandins, which was the cause of their infection and death. Moro is arrested in May 2010.
    During the tamandin hype, Salvatore looks after Oscar day and night. In July 2010, the faithful guard gets the announcement of his retirement, kills the tamandin Oscar and ends up in prison. No one asks why he has shot the tamandin. Small detail: It turns out that Oscar was a female, despite its name.
    At the same time, in July 2010, Giovanna visits the gynaecologist to get the confirmation that she is pregnant. She must have been five to six months pregnant.
  • Fourth, without having a name (I could not find it), Giovanna’s husband supports her calmly during the exciting months at the zoo. During that time, they also make love in late winter/early spring 2010. In 2013, a happy future opens up for Giovanna and her husband: Giovanna has left the zoo and is again successful at her former job in government, and the couple enjoys the life with their son that they had no longer expected.

I enjoyed the rich and dense language of Pascal. The words are concise and placed exactly where they fit. I took notes to keep track of the artfully intertwined story lines presented in small puzzle pieces with hints dispersed all over. Some of the hints I only understood, when reading the novel for the third time, for example:

  • In the first chapter, the architect Chahine Gharbi notices a metallic sphere, when settling in room number 324 in the hotel adjacent to the zoo. A metallic sphere? Reading the novel the third time, I understand: What Chahine sees, is the “Grande Volière”, the “Large Aviary”, built in the 1930’s at Mussolini’s request.
  • Soon after having started work as the head of communications and administration of the zoo, Giovanna visits the animals and notices the tamandin, marked as “in danger of extinction”. Coming back to the office, she finds an angry letter from the zoo of London asking the zoo of Rome to deliver the tamandin immediately. First, I thought, Giovanna has taken over a messy office. When reading the third time, I understand this hint: Moro, the veterinarian of Rome, has recently thrown ticks carrying viruses into the cage of the tamandins in the London zoo. Now he waits for the tamandins to pick up the ticks, catch the infection and die. For that reason, he has no intention to send his tamandin to England, as there is a good chance that Oscar will be the last anteater of its species, which will attract visitors to his zoo of Rome, desperately needed visitors.

 

The novel taught me much about the zoo of Rome… and about “my” Basel Zolli

These are some of the facts that Pascal’s novel told me about the zoo of Rome and other zoos:

  • I was shocked to read that Hagenbeck, the designer of the zoo of Rome (and of the Tierpark of Hamburg), was a trader of wild animals; by designing zoos, I believe, he cleverly created the market for his business. I was also dismayed to read, how many animals did not survive the transfer from wilderness to Rome, when the zoo was to be inaugurated in 1911. I was appalled that just a few years after the inauguration, cost saving efforts deprived the animals from food.
  • Urs Eggenschwyler was an eccentric Swiss who knew how to build artificial cement rocks. In the zoo of Rome, he built various rock landscapes and the iceberg. In the Basel Zolli, he built the rock for the seals. I had never thought about this rock around the pool being artificial, when watching the seals playfully “hunt” their food. The iceberg landscape in Karlsruhe should show the visitors, how the polar bears live in the Arctic. Hagenbeck was the first architect of zoos to have planned landscapes that reflect the habitat of the animals shown. Pascal describes nicely, how Hackenbeck dreamt of the animals living in their habitats, when reviewing the plans for the zoo of Rome.
  • I shivered, when “a crazy man” entered the cage of his lioness called Italia. Pascal resolves the mystery later: It was Mussolini. He ordered to enlarge the zoo, because it was smaller than other zoos of Europe. The architect de Vito was in charge of the construction. I liked to follow, how de Vito proceeded: He watched the animals intensely, he visited other zoos to gather ideas, and then, accidentally, he saw the cylindric gas reservoir of the community of Munich that became the model for the “Grande Volière” or “Large Aviary” allowing the birds to fly in circles, which is natural for them. Furthermore, he built his aviary in a sustainable way – more than 80 years later, the metal shines in the sun (as Chahine noted, when entering his hotel room with the view of the zoo). I would love to see de Vico’s aviary one day.
  • I have mixed feelings about zoos. Might be, the student Guido watching animals is right: Zoos are like Noah’s Ark. In Mongolia, I saw the Przewalski horses. They had become extinct in the wild, but they survived in various zoos. Resettlement was a success. It was beautiful to watch these elegant horses against the horizon of the Mongolian steppes.
  • Another finely observed detail: Chahine and Giovanna struggle with the zoo map. Zoo maps do seem to be a challenge; with the map of the Basel Zolli I always get lost.

 

The zoo is the backstage to caricature observations about people in fictional story lines 

The zoo of Rome is the backstage for creating caricatures about people and their behaviours. The observations, painted using fine brushstrokes, resonate with me. Let me give you some examples.

  • With pleasure, I observed the tender love emerge between Chahine and Giovanna, which culminates, when Chahine helps Giovanna to get rid of her wet cloth, after having been in the pouring rain during the move of the tamandin to the aviary. Wet cloth is hard to take off – I have also experienced that. Then Chahine wants to disappear in Giovanna’s body. Later I understand what he suffers from. While hiding in the iceberg until May, he visits Salvatore Leonardi guarding the tamandin in the Grande Volière and, as they do not speak the same language, he uses gestures to describe, how his seven years old daughter died in the car accident and that he was at the steering wheel. I feel sorry for Chahine devouring the soup that Leonardi offers to him, because probably he is very hungry.
    After their love night, Giovanna looks for Chahine, but cannot find him – she just finds his accessories, including the white plush polar bear that he had bought, perhaps with his daughter in mind; he has left the plush bear on the iceberg.
    I feel sympathy for Chahine’s wife that probably never saw her husband again – she had let him go to Rome saying: “What you need, is a project”, when the request to plan the shopping city came from Riyad. What a sign of love.
  • The calm love between Giovanna and her husband ends happily with their newly born son. Pascal leaves open the detail who might be the father of their son, Chahine or Giovanna’s husband. He gives a small hint: Giovanna’s husband loved their son that resembled Giovanna so much – what a tender loving care.
  • From the very first moment, I have felt bad with the veterinarian of the zoo of Rome, Moro. I hated that he thought, he knew everything better than the director of the zoo and that he disdained Giovanna by telling her that she had ink at her fingers, while she was explaining to him her ideas about the next steps to be taken for the zoo (occasionally, I came across such unfair behaviour at work…). Later, I felt Schadenfreude (malicious joy, a word that only exists in German, I believe), because Moro failed to go unnoticed, when attacking the two tamandins in the London zoo, though he had prepared everything in detail acquiring an English coat and an umbrella as well as paying cash for the bus and metro tickets to Regent’s Park. But at the entrance gate to the zoo, he felt stressed because of the long queue and he got engraved in the mind of the cashier, as he forgot the change in coins and his umbrella, his coat was too warm for the sunny day and he was too stingy to make a donation. I can imagine the man clearly.
    The veterinarian Nadia Monk of the London zoo wanted to know, why her tamandins had died and found viruses from ticks. One tick had a tiny thread of wool around its body, as she noticed in the microscope. She spent eleven nights in the office of the night shift security guard to watch the video surveillance films. The guard was not amused, as he loved to read poems during his night shifts – great caricature. After eleven nights, Nadia Monk identified a man in a coat throwing ticks at her tamandins. The cashier remembered the man. Due to Nadia’s persistence, Moro was arrested (Pascal only says that two policemen knocked at the door leaving the conclusion to the reader).
  • I relished reading about the touristic turmoil around the last tamandin anteater. The tamandin was shy and hid away in its bush. The visitors could hardly ever see it. Nevertheless, hordes of tourists came to the zoo and to the Volière, where it stayed, guarded by Salvatore Leonardi. Leonardi, also hidden, observed that the visitors were not interested in the tamandin, but only in themselves. The hype around the tamandin is a well-pictured allusion to overtourism, I find. It reminds me of what I saw in Petersburg in the Hermitage Museum: Tourists rushed to “Madonna and the Child” by Leonardo da Vinci, stopped, turned round, took a selfie “me and the must see tableau of da Vinci” and went off, without looking back – they were not interested in this magnificent work of art.
  • With sympathy, I followed the saga of the Leonardi family up to their grandson, Salvatore Leonardi that felt engaged for his animals, while he was just a bit talkative. I am sad to see him end up in prison. No one asked Salvatore Leonardi, why he killed the tamandin. I believe he wanted to protect the old animal from having to adapt to a new guard or he just felt sorry for the tamandin being the object of gawping crowds that were not interested in the animal as such. This is another detail that Pascal lets the reader solve himself.

I love history and I love novels that unfold their fictions in a historical setting. One of my favourite novels is “natural history” (historias naturales) by Juan Perucho who selected the Spanish Carlist War of 1840 to intertwine the fiction of “pursuit of the vampire by a young scientist and the scientist’s happy end with his love” (2).  With Pascal’s “le zoo de Rome”, I found a second favourite novel that joins history and fictions.

 

Epilogue: Animals are the basic material of fables and the rose colour of flamingos conveys happiness

Let me come back to what Pascal wrote in the dedication, when giving his book to me:

“Tu sais que les animaux sont la matière première des fables (you know that the animals are the basic material of fables).”

In fables, the animals act like humans and convey a moral lesson. In “le zoo de Rome” the animals remain animals (some of them fictional) and are a wonderful backstage for the fictional story lines. Nevertheless, I sense some moral reflections that resonate with me: For instance Mussolini entering the cage of his lioness is underlining his delusion of grandeur. The bear Fritz greeting like a fascist does not know, what it does. The chimpanzee Bungo that the animal welfare activists save from the bar to transfer it to the zoo asylum seems to suffer in its cage (good intention of the activists, but…). The rose flamingos had to move to a pond near the entrance to convey the feeling of happiness to the visitors, but they suffer, because the pebbles on the ground are too large for them to walk on (the new owners of the “Natura Park” look more for appearance than for the welfare of their protégés).

Perhaps it is for the rose colour conveying happiness that Pascal placed the elegant flamingo on the cover. Do you remember the song “la vie en rose” by Edith Piaf (3)? It gave hope to the generation of 1945 to find happiness again, now that the war was over.

I sense that the novel begins and ends with optimism: It begins with the rose colour of the flamingo on the cover to greet the reader which invited me to open the book. In the last chapter, we see the happiness of Giovanna and her husband with their son, which may makes me dream about their future.

Let us look for facets of life that makes us happy, now, that this virus confines our freedom to meet. It was wonderful to use video conferencing for discussing “le zoo of Rome” within the framework of the Solothurner Literaturtage (4).

 

Footnotes

(1) Pascal Janovak, “le zoo de Rome”, Actes Sud 2019

(2) See my blog about Juan Perucho, “historias naturales”, edhasa, Barcelona 2003.

(3) Edith Piaf, “la vie en rose”, YouTube officiel  written in 1945.

(4) Solothurner Literaturtage 2020