I was browsing the shelves in Cardiff Waterstones after book group on Sunday afternoon when I came across Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo. Although I already had a book lined up for Z in the A to Z Challenge, this satire really appealed, so here we are.
Meet Yuri Zipit.
A boy who’s had a bang on the head in a collision with a Moscow milk truck.
He has a kind face, makes friends easily, and likes to help. People want to tell him their secrets.
Including the Great Leader himself, who takes a shine to Yuri when he employs him for his natural talents.
In his new job, Yuri will witness it all – betrayals, body doubles, buffoonery. Who knew that a man could be in five places at once? That someone could break your nose as a sign of friendship? That people could be disinvented . . .?
I rattled through Christopher Wilson’s The Zoo which sprints right out of the gate. Twelve-year-old Yuri is excitable, filled with facts and questions that tumble out of him, and I couldn’t help but be swept along in the slipstream of this, sometimes doubting if I could keep up with the pace.
It’s 1953 and Yuri lives with his father, a Professor of Veterinary Science, in the staff block at the Kapital Zoo. His father specialises in Cordate Neurology (the study of the brain in any animal with a backbone) and is attached to the Zoo. After two childhood accidents when he was six and a lightning strike, Yuri has been left brain damaged and also suffers from epilepsy. While he’s intelligent and can observe what’s going on around him, he’s not always adept at understanding the meaning behind what people say or do.
When he’s plunged into Stalin’s inner circle, things rapidly become yet more complicated. As he explains it, he doubts anyone would fully understand what was going on, even if they had a fully-functioning brain:
To grasp it all you would need to speak Georgian like a native, tell dirty jokes like a Mingrelian secret policeman, … , be able to drink two bottles of pepper vodka and still stay sober, be a consultant in Neurology, and a senior member of the Politburo, with a doctorate in assassinations.
I can understand why not everyone will be comfortable with Yuri as the book’s main character but I think he’s treated sympathetically by his creator and works well here. It’s not so much of a leap to accept that he might have found himself where he does, when it would have required a greater suspension of disbelief with another character. The fact that he takes things at face value also helps to keep things light.
Yuri invites confidences because his naivety sees him dismissed and means he’s not considered to pose a threat, gaining him access to conversations and rooms from which he’d otherwise have been barred. And it’s this unique perspective which allows Christopher Wilson to lampoon the excess and hypocrisy of Stalin and his inner circle with their lavish feasts and Western cinema, political manoeuvring and body doubles, while also giving the reader a taste of the more disturbing and brutal acts.
I was thankful that Yuri’s epilepsy spared me from having to go too deep into that dark side, as well as offering him some protection, together with that of his childlike innocence and naivety. Not only is he an appealing character in his own right with a strong voice but he also acts as a rare beacon of hope in the midst of what was a soul-destroying and brutal, (literally) bone-crushing regime.
As was clear from the title, The Zoo certainly wasn’t going to glorify this period in Russian history. Instead, it manages to show how terrifying it was to live under Stalin’s regime, yet also how ridiculous some of their edicts and demands were. It’s a funny novel about a grim history but moves along so quickly that I didn’t have time to dwell on all that horror and get mired in it.
The Zoo is a sharp, clever, funny and engaging satire that deserves to be read. Let Yuri act as your guide and take you to the world of Comrade Elephant, the hyena, the pig, the donkey and the goat.
The Zoo by Christopher Wilson is published by Faber & Faber. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback and in paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive where purchases help support your local independent bookshop. For more on Christopher Wilson and his books, check out his Author Website or find him on Twitter.