Yuri Romanovich Zipit, the twelve-year-old narrator of Christopher Wilson’s wild and hilarious new novel, The Zoo, has had a hard life (but then again not so hard as some people in the Soviet Union in 1954).
When Yuri was six he was run over by a milk truck and then a Moscow tram. This left him with brain damage that gives him some oddities that aren’t exactly beneficial under a repressive dictatorship where going along and never speaking your mind can be life-saving.
“I talk a lot, and move a lot, and ask a lot of questions, and make up my mind quickly, and do things on the spur of the moment, and find new solutions to things, and say rude things without thinking, and interrupt people to tell them when they’ve got things wrong, and blurt things out, and change my mind, and make strange animal noises, and show lots of feelings, and get impatient, and act unexpectedly. All of which makes me like other people. But more so.”
Yuri, who is considered an “idiot boy” lives with his father at the Moscow Zoo. His father is the Head Veterinarian, a specialist in cordate neurology which Yuri tells us means “the study of whatever goes wrong inside the brains of animals, so long as they have a backbone.”
One evening Yuri’s father gets a visit from two secret policemen (Yuri answers the door and with characteristic bluntness calls out to his father, “It’s two secret policemen… For you. A fat one who’s out-of-breath, and a skinny one with yellow teeth.”)
Yuri and his father and spirited off to what turns out to be Joseph Stalin’s dacha. The dying dictator has lost faith in doctors (“Zionist Cosmopolitans”) and now will only trust a vet.
From here on the satire becomes at times very bleak. Yuri’s father soon disappears and Yuri is left alone in the dacha, with all of the chaos attending the imminent death of Stalin as fear, treachery, jockeying for power and sheer insanity ensue. (This is also the subject of Armando Iannucci’s new comedy film The Death of Stalin.)
In many ways Yuri has swapped life in one zoo for life in another. Stalin even has animal names for the Four Henchmen who are plotting against him. For safety’s sake, Yuri doesn’t use real names in his retelling (Stalin is “Iron-Man” for example) but Beria, Khrushchev, and others are easily recognizable.
Like the autistic narrator of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Yuri gets to relate the bizarre goings on at the dacha filtered through his own naive perspective.
Everyone (except Iron-Man) treats him like an idiot and Yuri takes everything anyone says at face value. As the Khrushchev character (the porcine “Krushka”) tells him, “You see it all. Yet you understand nothing.”
A lot of the henchmen’s paranoia around Iron-Man’s health and erratic behaviour (he has vascular dementia and suffers a series of strokes) reminded me of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George. No one wants to act too soon and no one wants to act too late. Everyone wants information. Even a dying Iron-Man can terrify them.
In many ways The Zoo is a cautionary tale about the cult of personality in dictatorships (think North Korea).
It is also a novel about knowledge and its importance – how it is acquired, how it can be trusted and how it can be used and misused. Yuri comes into possesion of a very important document, Iron-Man’s hand-written choice of successor, but fails to understand its significance.
It is also a picaresque novel as Yuri moves from comic adventure to comic adventure (he becomes Iron-Man’s official food taster, he befriends three of Iron-Man’s doubles) as well as enduring horrific suffering. Yuri is thrown in prison at one point and Winston handles the change in tone superbly.
I did have some trouble with Yuri’s narrative voice. As the novel proceeds he becomes less convincing as a twelve-year-old naif. Despite that I still found the book endlessly entertaining, both hilarious and harrowing and very moving. Who’d have thought anyone could write a book that almost made me sympathize with Joseph Stalin?
Satire can be hard to sustain and Wilson handles this angle very well. There is a realistic feeling throughout and Wilson is very specific about small details that keep the story from being fantasy. Nothing happens that couldn’t conceivably have happened historically at the dacha.
The Zoo is a remarkable book. Its blend of comedy and pathos is well sustained. Wilson has had some serious health issues over the years and this is his first book in over a decade. I am eager to read what he comes up with next.
The Zoo by Christopher Wilson, Faber & Faber