In brief: Yuri is a young boy damaged in body, but not spirit. One night, he and his father are removed from their apartment to tend a very important someone who they never saw. But it looks like they swapped the Kapital’s zoo for another kind of zoo…
The good: Witty and funny with a tender heart from Yuri.
The not-so-good: Some of these generals need to grow up!
Why I chose it: Thanks to Allen & Unwin for this satire.
Publisher: Faber and Faber (Allen & Unwin, RRP $24.99 AUD)
Setting: The Kapital
Rating: 7 out of 10
I have a thing for books that are set in Communist era Eastern Europe. Maybe it’s because I have people close to me that lived through it, maybe it’s just me being nosey. Whatever the reason, give me a book set there and I’ll devour it. I don’t think The Zoo was in my possession more than 24 hours before I’d slipped it into my handbag to read at any convenient break.
The Zoo is a quirky satire of the last days of Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. All the details are a bit obscure, but if you know some Communist history, you will find several familiar faces and actions. To lighten the mood, the story is told in the first person by Yuri, a 12 year old boy who is broken. Not in spirit, but in body. Yuri has to be the unluckiest little boy in the Kapital after being hit by multiple things. There’s a part of his brain that doesn’t quite work, but he’s all heart. Plus, Yuri’s father has given him rules to live by including never to mention politics and changing your underwear. When Yuri and his father are suddenly taken from the apartment at the Kapital Zoo, they are naturally frightened. Yuri’s father has been asked to treat someone who is, but definitely isn’t, Comrade Iron-Man. Uncle Joe. The problem is that Yuri’s dad is a vet, not a human doctor. But Comrade Iron-Man takes a special liking to Yuri and his bald, but well-meaning questions. He makes Yuri his official food taster, which means he sees a lot of the Kapital’s finest at their not so fine…
The Zoo is a cleverly written satire with both obvious and not-so-obvious clues and symbols as to life in the 1950s Soviet Union. I loved how Yuri exchanged a zoo of animals for a zoo of politicians (maybe there’s something to say about the current political climate). Uncle Joe is a character that you can’t love, but you can’t quite hate either. At this point, he’s a broken, dying man who occasionally shows a flicker of compassion in Yuri’s presence. With his subordinates, he tries desperately to hold the fort, forcing his staff to do a lot of degrading things. But he never quite reaches the heights of power that Yuri tells us. And as for his fate…I found the ending not quite surprising as I knew these people were capable of everything, but a little sad. Yes, sad for Stalin. Or not Stalin. Because he was never there, you see.
Christopher Wilson adds to the satire by including some tender scenes that come almost out of the blue. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but they are unexpected and bring a tear to the eye. He reminds us that beyond the drinking, eating and drunken humiliation lies something more sinister in the Kapital. The casual references and actual violence of some of the inner members of the Kapital take the reader backwards to remind us that this wasn’t all fun and awkward questions from Yuri. Yuri is adorable, but the darker parts of the book help to make the story feel a bit more personal rather than a caricature.
Overall, The Zoo was equal parts dry wit and satire. Definitely worth reading if you like your books razor sharp!