UKArchive ID: 30040A Visit to the Zoo by sirat
Originally published on April 1, 2013 in Fiction    

This is for my own challenge in the Prose Workshop forum: to write a story told by an unreliable narrator. Like several others, I think, I've deviated slightly from that brief, and what I've actually come up with is a character (rather than a narrator) who speaks in parables.

‘You don’t know me? So what? I don’t know you either. What has that got to do with anything?’ Professor Weinreb looked down at Lucy’s teacher with a mixture of impatience and disdain.
        ‘Well, Sir, we aren’t supposed to hand the children over to anybody we don’t know.’
        ‘I see. Very wise... Lucy!’ He rattled the iron gate with his cane. ‘Would you kindly come out here and verify that I am your kindly old grandfather, and not the neighbourhood axe murder?’ He lowered his voice. ‘Certainly nobody would accuse me of being a paedophile. I can’t abide most of the little horrors.’
        Lucy made her way through the group of infants to Miss Munsen’s side. ‘He’s my granddad,’ she confirmed. ‘He’s really weird.’
        ‘I see. Well, I’ll just have to give your mother a quick call on her mobile – it won’t take a moment.’ She took Lucy’s hand and led her briskly back into the building. Professor Weinreb made a grunting sound, expressive of exasperation. The children watched him in silence.
        ‘You’ve all had a good look,’ he addressed them after a few moments. ‘May I enquire as to your opinion of what you see?’
        ‘You’re proper weird, Mister,’ a little boy ventured.
        ‘Quite so. Very perceptive of you. There’s widespread agreement on that point.’
        Before long Miss Munsen re-emerged, smiling now and still holding Lucy’s hand.        
        ‘I’m sorry about that, Professor Wineberg. But you understand of course that we have to be careful.’
        ‘Weinreb, Miss Munsen. It’s a Polish name. Polish Jewish, in fact, so it’s become rather rare… in recent years.’
        ‘Sorry, Professor. Anyway it’s quite all right, Mrs Boyd simply forgot to tell us that you would be picking Lucy up today.’ She used the keypad to open the gate and Lucy let go of her hand and took her grandfather’s instead.
        ‘Quite all right. Come, Lucy. The domain of the beasts awaits.’ He glanced back at Miss Munsen. ‘You don’t need to be alarmed. I’m taking her to the zoo, not hell.’

As the pair drew up to the lemur’s enclosure the creatures stopped what they were doing, which was mainly climbing over the crude wooden frames and swinging on the ropes and tires that their keepers had thoughtfully provided, tumbling around on the grass, and, in the case of the babies, leaping from low posts onto the bodies of their ever-patient elders. Instead the entire colony formed a line just inside the chicken-wire barrier and stared at the newcomers. Their squeals and chattering stopped.
        ‘Unique to the island nation of Madagascar,’ the professor explained, seemingly to the concerned-looking animals themselves. ‘It was a little bit of Africa that broke off about a hundred and sixty million years ago. The animals on the mainland went on evolving and turned into the monkeys and the apes, and eventually you and me, but the ones cut off on Madagascar hardly evolved at all. Those little creatures are what we would be without the evolutionary pressures that turned us into the nasty and joyless bastards that we are today. They’re charming creatures – all subsequent primate evolution was a major mistake.’
        ‘You mean, you think they’re better than us?’ Lucy was anxious to get it right.
        ‘Almost any other species is morally superior to ours. But the lemurs are right at the top. They have yet to lose the ability to have fun. Have yet to learn how to hunt, kill and destroy. They still have their innocence. They are the angels from which we descended. Tragic – quite tragic.’
He shook his head. The lemurs slowly regained their animation.
        ‘Can we see the lions now?’
        ‘In a moment. Do you mind if we sit down here for a while. I’m feeling a little tired.’ They took their places on a low bench, and the professor closed his eyes. ‘Why is it that children always want to see the lions? Violent bullies, the kind who would tear you to pieces and eat you, given half a chance?’
        ‘Yes, but it’s exciting. And they can’t get at you. They’re behind bars.’
        ‘The bars. Yes, we should be very grateful for the bars. And use them as a reminder of how little stands between us and annihilation.’
        ‘What’s… analisation?’
        ‘Just death, my dear. Plain old death. And it comes to us all in the end. The bars don’t save us for very long.’
        ‘Mummy says you think too much because you’re a philosopher. What’s a philosopher?’
        ‘That’s not an easy question. It’s someone of a particular frame of mind. A particular approach to knowledge, and to life.’
        ‘Mummy said you went to a big college and got certificates, and that’s what made you a philosopher.’
        ‘No, that’s wrong. It was the other way around. What made me go to the big college and get the certificates was that I was a philosopher. Life had already condemned me to that.’
        ‘So what is it that makes somebody a philosopher?’
        ‘You ask very difficult questions. But then children always do. Let me try to answer. Have you ever lain in bed at night and wondered if there’s any end to outer space, or if time will just go on and on forever, or if it will stop, and what there will be after that? Or if people really choose the things they do, or if they just think they do, but really it’s because of who they are, and how they were brought up, and all kinds of things that they can’t control? Or do you wonder what it will be like to be dead and not exist any more? Have you ever thought about things like that?’
        ‘Yes. In bed. How did you know?’
        ‘Because we all do, when we’re children. Then most of us grow up and other things crowd in and we don’t think about those kinds of things any more. We think about getting jobs, and finding husbands and wives, and bringing up new children – who will lie in bed and think about exactly the same things. Most people get on with their lives and leave questions like that alone. It’s called growing up. But some people can’t, and I’m one of those. Because of the way I am – because I’m a philosopher – I can’t let go of the questions that have no answers. It’s actually a mental disability, and most certainly a social one. But they wouldn’t give me a Disability Living Allowance so they gave me a professorship instead. They probably did it to save money. And of course to keep me out of mischief – to protect normal society from the likes of me.’
        ‘Are you dangerous, like a lion?’
        ‘People who think a lot can be very dangerous. Particularly to leaders and people who want to control other people. But really they’re far less dangerous than people who don’t think at all. And they, sadly, are in the majority. And, given the right circumstances, they are the ones who can behave like lions. Not us. Credit where credit is due. All we do is make noise. Chatter, like the lemurs.’
        ‘Can we see the lions now?’
        ‘Please forgive me, Lucy, but I am still rather tired. I have some sandwiches that your mother made in my rucksack. And lemonade. Or at least something in a can with a lot of dissolved carbon dioxide. Would you like to eat now?’
        ‘Yes please!’
        He carefully took off his backpack and laid the contents out on the bench between them.
        ‘Jaffa cakes! I love Jaffa cakes!’
        ‘Just to keep your mother from telling us off, do you think you could eat the cheese sandwiches first? At least I think that’s what they are.”
        ‘Okay.’ She tucked in. The professor merely leaned back and slumped a little more, as though he might fall asleep at any moment. ‘Don’t you want any, granddad?’
        ‘Not just now, thank you, Lucy. A little later perhaps.’
        ‘Do I have to leave you some?’
        ‘No, you don’t dear. I’m not hungry today. Have as much as you like.’
        For a few moments he watched her eat. ‘Jaffa is a place, you know. A town in Israel. One of the oldest human settlements on earth. Near to Tel Aviv. Almost a part of it now. A beautiful little seaside town. I lived there when I was a child. Maybe some day you’ll go to Israel too.’
        ‘Another very difficult question. Because your mother’s family has its roots there. Because the bars are very strong to keep the lions out. I don’t know… it’s just somewhere I would like you to see… one day.’ He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open.
        ‘Are you all right, granddad?’
        ‘Of course. Are your mother’s sandwiches good?’
        ‘Not as good as the Jaffa cakes.’
        ‘I met your grandmother in Jaffa. It’s a pity you never knew her. I often try to imagine how you and she would have got on. She was very like you. She loved life. Loved to have a good time. Loved animals. Lived in the present, not the past. The past… was too terrible even to think about…’
        ‘Is she in heaven now?’
        ‘No, Lucy. You mustn’t believe things that aren’t true. That’s what causes all the trouble. People are strange creatures, they have to tell a story about everything. There must always be a narrative, an explanation, a justification. If we don’t know the answer we have to make one up. We can’t live with uncertainty. The truth is that nobody knows what happens when you die. Probably nothing happens. You stop being, that’s all. Heaven is one of the stories that people have made up to explain things that they don’t understand and can’t face up to. And if you’re willing to accept one thing without evidence, the chances are you’ll be willing to accept something else. And then something else. And before you know it you’ll be willing to accept anything that people in authority tell you. Do anything that they order you to. Our only defence is rationality. The refusal to accept anything without evidence and reasons. The courage to face up to not knowing everything. Confidence in our own judgements. That’s all we’ve got to keep the lions behind the bars. When we lose it, that’s when they run amok and tear us to pieces.’
        Her little brow became furrowed. ‘You’re weird, Granddad. I don’t understand what you say a lot of the time. How can not believing things keep the lions behind the bars?’
        'The lions can’t act on their own. It’s the sheep who do their dirty work. Sheep are more dangerous than lions… are you still there, Lucy?’
        ‘Of course I am, Granddad. Can’t you see me?’
        Granddad’s eyes were tight shut now. ‘What I see… right now… is your grandmother. She’s about fifteen years old and she’s coming down the gangplank from a big ship, carrying a brown leather case, with a lot of other people… they’ve sent me there to meet her, to welcome her, because I speak her language and she hasn’t got anybody else… she looks very like you… the same eyes, and the same hair… and she’s smiling at me. Even though she hasn’t got anybody, she’s smiling at me, because I’m speaking her language, and telling her that she’s safe now, that she’s going to have a new home and a new family… that the lions won’t be able to get to her…’
        His voice faded out. He settled even lower into his seat. Lucy returned her attention to the picnic. She had finished the sandwiches now so it was all right to start on the Jaffa cakes.

Lucy walked up to the side of one of the two keepers who were carrying the buckets of meat for the lions.
        ‘’Scuse me. My Granddad is asleep and I can’t wake him up, and I think it’s time for us to go home.’
        The two men looked at one another and the one Lucy had spoken to handed his bucket to the other. ‘Where is your granddad, sweetheart?’
        They walked together to where he was slumped on the bench, the picnic remains still spread out beside him. Lucy watched as the keeper gently shook her granddad’s shoulder, then reached beneath his bearded chin and felt his throat. He said something into his radio too quietly for Lucy to hear before he turned and addressed her.
        ‘Look, sweetheart, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m afraid your granddad has gone to heaven.’
        A tear began to trickle down Lucy’s face. ‘You mustn’t say that,’ she scolded him gently. ‘If you say that the lions will get out.’

© sirat (sirat on OLD UKA)
UKArchive ID: 30040
Archived comments for A Visit to the Zoo
Rupe on 01-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I liked it. There are some effective but unobtrusive parallels here - the schoolteacher and the real teacher, the zoo containing animals and the zoo of the world, the lions and the sheep - and the death of the prof at the end gives the story point and poignancy.

I couldn't help feeling that the story becomes weaker at the points where the prof abandons his parables and preaches directly. The paragraph containing the phrase 'our only defence is rationality' is particularly glaring in this regard. The urgency with which he wants to get his message across before he dies comes through strongly, but the language used is rather vague and abstract ('evidence', 'rationality' etc).


Author's Reply:
Thanks for the feedback. I take your point about the abstract language the professor uses. In my own mind I think he realises that Lucy won't understand much of what he's saying at the time he says it, but he hopes that she'll remember it and understand it when she's a bit older, and he believes that the way to make a child remember is to turn everything into a story. I'll take a look at the point about his preaching more directly at times. My immediate feeling though is that it might be difficult to avoid it completely while retaining the points that he wants to make.
Lots of food for thought there. many thanks.

bluepootle on 01-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Very enjoyable, and I liked the dialogue-heavy nature of it. Towards the end I thought interspersing the dialogue with the occasional description of the lemurs, or something from the natural world, even just fading light as the day wears on, would have made another strong juxtaposition.

'He seemed to be having difficulty keeping his eyes open,' pulled me out of the action. Too formal, with that 'seemed to'. And personally I wasn't keen on the lone tear on Lucy's face. Too contrived, maybe. Is there some other way you can show the struggle between emotion and reason in a small child? But apart from those niggles, I enjoyed the honesty of it. It had a message to get across, and it went for it.

Author's Reply:
Extremely useful feedback. Many thanks.

I think you're right that the dialogue towards the end needs breaking up in some way. I'll have a good think about that. And about the 'seemed to', which of course weakens the sentence, but I was trying to stay within Lucy's POV.

I used a 'single tear' or something closely similar as the very last line of Engineering Paradise as well (not counting the Epilogue). I know it isn't very original. I'll have to see if I can come up with something better.

Thanks again.

TheBigBadG on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I'll start with the typo in the first line (disdain) and move swiftly on. At the risk of being churlish I think, as you note in the intro, this piece doesn't have an unreliable narrator, instead he seems very reliable. That does completely miss the point of the piece though and doesn't add anything to discussion, so to one side it goes.

It is a good piece and the structure of it is perhaps the strongest element for me. The layering of bars, authority and obedience through the various stories told leaves a lot to think on. Perhaps the simplest example of what I mean is the man who says 'challenge everything' who met the love of his life because he was sent to meet her by the nameless 'they'. It all feeds back into itself at the right moments. I did also see the end coming pretty much as soon as he sat down incidentally, but I didn't mind.

A lot of the dialogue works well as well, she comes across as a believable child as much as he comes across as a tired old man with too little time left. As Rupe notes it does have your trademark exposition section which feels a bit unnatural this time. Perhaps it's a symptom of the child/philosopher dynamic? Sophie's World comes to mind. As an alternative suggestion to Blue's, because I feel the granddad is more integral to the story, you could extend his slipping into reverie (present tense, I note) and weave the key elements of the exposition into him slipping into confusion. He seems to me to be the kind of character who'd have a history of non-compliance to draw on for one. Or maybe even have him conflate lions and sheep as he goes, leaving Lucy confused about his message. It would tip him over into the realms of unreliability!


Author's Reply:
Thanks very much G, a great analysis there.

Taking the smaller points first, I'm grateful for the heads-up on the typo – will fix that right away.

At least two people have highlighted the 'exposition' section now, so I think that's the first bit to look at again. I'll also try to read Sophie's World when I get the time – I know it exists but have never read it, or seen the film.

On your later points, I don't actually see the Professor as slipping into confusion. Rather I see him as aware at some level that life is slipping away and wanting to pass on to Lucy the two things that he regards as most important for her to know, 1. That she has roots. Her mother was rescued from one of the camps, her family having been wiped out, and sent to a different family (his) in Israel to start a new life. That's actually based on the life of Helga Weissová whose book I reviewed in Gold Dust, but it happened time out of count to tens of thousands of Hitler's victims. 2. He wants her to reject all faiths and ideologies and rely on her own judgement, as he has done. Be it Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, The Book of Mormon or the Little Red Book, all the faiths and ideologies that ask you to accept without question are, in his view, equally toxic. And I tried to show in the ending that he has in fact sown the seeds of rationalism in Lucy's young mind.

Finally, as I said in the introduction, I have indeed departed from the idea of an unreliable narrator because I trried it (about three times in fact) and couldn't come up with anything worthwhile. I have stressed always that what I want from these challenges is to end up with a piece of writing that I can be proud of, or at least reasonably happy with, and whether or not I have obeyed the rules doesn't really interest me. Must be my anarchist soul coming to the fore.

Thanks again for your very perceptive input.

TheBigBadG on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Just a quick response to your response because it sounds like I may not have been completely clear. The professor doesn't come across as confused in this at all; my talk of him being confused was my postulating alternative takes based on your set up. As it is he is lucid, and it's clear that he's choosing to remember instead of being overcome by it. So don't worry, it's doing what you expected it to as a piece of writing, I'm just dithering off-topic as usual.

As for departing from theme - absolutely. Maybe I'm rose-tinting things but I'm sure we all seem to pull the best stuff out of the bag when we're being liberal with the challenge. I just had to get my teeth into the details of this one because it proved such an interesting task technically. Which is, of course, what it's all about.

Author's Reply:
Ah yes, I suppose I took it as a recommendation rather than a suggestion.

I found the challenge almost impossible too, but interesting (though I say so myself). I might come back to it 'in my own time'.

SirClip on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I enjoyed this. I like the dialogue; it sounds natural and does alot to move the story on. I confess I got a little lost at times but that is just me I guess. I am no great thinker, I just like a good story.

Author's Reply:
Glad that you enjoyed it, even if you got a bit lost here and there. I thought it was reasonably straightforward, although I was aiming at quite a lot of subtext. Thanks for the kind words.

Savvi on 02-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
I enjoyed the detail behind this and the character introduction very well crafted and smooth read, child set against intelligent adult/ loving granddad really worked for me.

Author's Reply:
Thanks very much Savvi. Much appreciated.

zenbuddhist on 03-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo

In the first paragraph you need to cut out the lines...' Professor Weinreb looked down at Lucy’s teacher with a mixture of impatience and disdain.' this is unnecessary 'tell' we get the gist by what's been said...and ...' He lowered his voice. ‘Certainly nobody would accuse me of being a paedophile. I can’t abide most of the little horrors.’  ...low voice or not only a fool would mention the word paedophile at a primary school gate and I take it you don't want to portray him as an imbecile , also... 'He glanced back at Miss Munsen. ‘You don’t need to be alarmed. I’m taking her to the zoo, not hell.’ ...this spoils a good bit of subtext, well, we soon find out it's the zoo but best to keep the reader hanging for a bit.

I get that the suggestion is a grown man, albeit elderly, spouting out an internal monologue but he's not he's talking to a child, no child would be able to understand his topics and mode of speech, it's unrealistic. You need to simplify it into short sentences accompanied with some exaggerated dramatic actions as a granddad would when explaining something. Oh and strike out 'bastards'

The voice of the child is far too grown up and there not a primary school child in the world that lies in bed wondering about ...' if there’s any end to outer space, or if time will just go on and on forever, or if it will stop, and what there will be after that? Or if people really choose the things they do, or if they just think they do, but really it’s because of who they are, and how they were brought up, and all kinds of things that they can’t control? Or do you wonder what it will be like to be dead and not exist any more? Have you ever thought about things like that?’ ... Not one, and if mine did I would be a seriously worried man.

It reads like a writer writing a story...and that's to be avoided like....a pestilence

Lots of cliche's, too many to list but the furrowed little brow grated especially for me.

It's not that it's a bad story and before I started writing myself I probably would have just read it and enjoyed it for what it is...Ha ha but not now...which is no bad thing.

Author's Reply:
Thanks for all your detailed comments. I think what you're really saying is that it's hopeless and I should forget it, which is a perfectly valid reaction, but I don't think I'll be doing that. I'll just note your comments but respectfully disagree with pretty well all of them. If I may say so I think you let yourself down a bit with the ''ha ha' in the last sentence.

zenbuddhist on 03-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Well it's pretty obvious that the haha was meant as jovial but I apologise if you think I was mocking you. These comments are valid, show not tell, over-explanation, wrong voiced characters, cliche...all faults, and faults that can be corrected with some editing . I'm astonished at your attitude that I'm somehow dismissing this with some kind of malicious agenda. You yourself have pointed out similar faults in the work of others. These are mearley comments designed to help you improve yourself as a writer

Author's Reply:

Andrea on 21-04-2013
A Visit to the Zoo
Here's a song for you David 🙂

Author's Reply:
I think this one is a little bit nearer the mark for the story: