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Fiction set in Zurich (a pacy and exciting read)

30th May 2018

Elefant by Martin Suter, fiction set in Zurich. Translated by Jamie Bulloch.

Fiction set in Zurich

Schoch, down-and-out, alcoholic and living on the streets of Zurich, wakes one morning to see a small pink elephant hiding out at the back of his shelter. Understandably, he thinks he is hallucinating and resolves to consider it no further but when he returns later, the little creature is still there and is clearly in need of his help. Schoch subsequently discovers that the small elephant is a product of genetic engineering and that the evil scientists who created her are hell-bent on recapturing her and using her to make themselves rich. Schoch, with the help of his friend, Valerie, nurture Sabu and do everything they can to protect her from exploitation.

Elefant’s plot sounds like a fairy-tale or perhaps child fiction but the language of the novel makes it clear that this is written for an adult audience and a quite delightful and different novel it is, full of warmth and absolute celebration of all the best in human nature. It is chock full of the most endearing portrayals – Schoch himself, the vet Reber and Valerie, who has dedicated her life to compensating for the cruelties inflicted on the animal kingdom by her father. There is a child-like simplicity in the clear divide between the good guys and the bad in Elefant, but, if anything that just adds to the satisfaction of the read.

Suter is undoubtedly intent on conveying a very clear moral message in the novel: that the potential dangers of genetic engineering in the hands of unscrupulous scientists far, far outweighs any possible benefits, but, because he delivers it through the medium of this essentially heartening novel, it doesn’t feel as though you’re being educated. There is a very touching scene where Sabu begins behaving rather strangely. When Schoch queries this, he is told that Sabu is just demanding respect, as is her right, just as it is her right to be cared for and protected. As we read about and come to care for Sabu, as every right-minded character in the novel does, we are clearly being gently encouraged to reflect on the way we treat other human beings, particularly in today’s world.

Lest this all sounds too serious stuff, Elefant is also a really pacey and exciting read, as Schoch et al. go to immense lengths to outwit the evil forces of Roux and Tseng. The story moves back and forward in time, starting with Schoch finding Sabu and his developing relationship with her and shifting back in time to tell us the story of the small elephant’s creation. This juxtaposition serves to further emphasize the cruelty and selfishness of the scientists’ perspective.

Elefant is set, almost entirely, in and around Zurich, but there is little sense of place in the novel – perhaps intentionally, as Suter clearly wants the reader to see the events of the novel as potentially occurring anywhere, but loss of setting is, in any case, a small price to pay when offered such riches in exchange.

Ellen for the TripFiction team

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