Home > 2010, 21st Century, Beukes Lauren, Polar, Science Fiction, South-African Literature > White heat is screaming in the jungle

White heat is screaming in the jungle

February 23, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (2011) French title: Zoo City. (Translated by Laurent Philibert-Caillat)

Can’t stop the spirits when they need you

This life is more than just a read-through

Can’t Stop by Red Hot Chili Peppers

After On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, I needed something urban and fast-paced. I wanted a radical change of atmosphere. So I picked Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and my wish was fulfilled.

beukesWe are in Johannesburg, in the fictional neighborhood of Zoo City where criminals live with their symbiotic animal. In this world, since they committed a crime and feel responsible for it, criminals have to wear their guilt in the form of a living animal glued to them day and night. Indeed, if they walk away from it, both die.

Zinzi is a former journalist, a former junkie and a former convict. That’s a lot for a person. She now belongs to Zoo City and her animal is a Sloth. (In French, it’s called a Paresseux, literally, a Lazy, so it gives an extra-dimension to the imposed pet). Zinzi survives by using her supernatural gift: she sees a person’s lost objects and can find them again. She advertises through flyers and proposes her services against a little cash. You lost your ring? Zinzi can find it and bring it back to you. One morning, she goes to an old lady’s place to bring her object back and get paid. But when she arrives there, the old lady has been killed and Zinzi can say good-bye to her money. Out of necessity, she’s forced to accept a mission she doesn’t like: she must find a person, a teenage pop star named Song, who’s been missing for a few days. Her guts tell her she should refuse this job but her wallet won’t allow it…

Then we are thrown into a classic Noir plot. A person with a past is cornered into accepting a task they know is shady. They get mixed into seedy business with a colorful string of characters and have to overcome obstacles to solve the problem. They may have to call in favors. And the journey is not without impact on their personal life. It has been done before but Lauren Beukes blends well into the genre and I totally understand why she was invited to Quai du Polar last year.

She has written pure Noir. Zinzi is a new version of the struggling PI who survives of lowly jobs and gets mixed into something that’s bigger than him. (The PI is usually a He). The investigation regarding Song works like a canvas and holds the book together but the most interesting is the atmosphere and the unusual idea of wearing your guilt on your sleeve through an animal’s impersonation.

What’s unique is the setting. It’s atmospheric and although you’re only reading with your eyes, I had the feeling other senses than my eyesight were called out. For me, this book had the sound track of Red Hot Chili Peppers in Can’t Stop. It conjured up images of Nikita by Luc Besson, only in black-and-white. As Zinzi investigates Song’s disappearance all over Johannesburg, I could almost smell the city, the car exhaust, the disagreeable smell you have in public transports like the metro in Paris. It smells metallic from the contact of the trains’ wheels with the rails and stale from the lack of proper airing. I could imagine the constant noise, the one you have in the congested streets of New York with emergency vehicles and police cars blaring. Johannesburg is as much a character and the humans in Zoo City. Lauren Beukes gives us a feel of its fictional impersonation just as you get a vision of Los Angeles in a novel by Chandler. Zinzi goes everywhere, from the bowels of the drain network to shopping malls, from the dangerous streets and decrepit buildings of Zoo City to the luxurious villa of Song’s producer and from the night life in bars to Benoît’s day job as a security employee.

And then, there’s the idea of this pet forced on you. Redemption is an illusion and this animal is a constant reminder of your actions. The past can’t lie in the past. Zinzi has a Sloth but some have an insect and some get encumbered by a marabou. While the insect can be hidden in a handbag, the marabou is a lot more difficult to conceal. Throughout the book, we learn a little more about Zinzi’s past life. Her present is in her life with her lover Benoît, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He had a wife and kids that he left behind, in a country ravaged by war. He has an animal with him, a mongoose and of course, a terrible past. With Benoît, Zinzi is forced to be part of the refugees who came from different war zones in Africa. Although we are in a fictional world but it still bears resemblance with ours and this part sounded real. Coming from my little self-centered Western world, I pictured South Africa like a piece of Western culture in Africa. I never realized it wasn’t isolated from all the horrible wars of the continent, that it had its share of refugees from combat zones. This is a side of South Africa I didn’t expect and I feel a bit stupid to be surprised.

Zoo City is not my usual type of books. I bought it last year at Quai du Polar. Lauren Beukes was there, I went to talk to her because I remembered Max’s glowing review of Zoo City. She was really friendly with her public and I’m the happy owner of a signed copy of this little jewel. Check out Max’s review since he’s read the book in English and thus has quotes to share. It will give you an idea of Lauren Beukes’s addicting style. He was also able to explain more specifically the animal phenomenon, something I didn’t find the English words for. Thanks Max, I owe you another one.


  1. February 23, 2015 at 5:07 am

    I met Lauren at Quais du Polar as well and loved her friendly, no-nonsese approach. She said she hates genre labels and tries to write somewhere at the junction between genres, which she certainly does. I haven’t read Zoo City, but I was amazed by her narrative skills in Broken Monsters, so I will probably go to all her back log and read.


    • February 23, 2015 at 10:06 pm

      She hates genre labels? That’s great, I’m not good at putting books in boxes.
      I’ll have a look at Broken Monsters, thanks for the recommendation.


  2. February 23, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Terrific review, Emma. I loved Zoo City when read it a couple of years ago – the premise, the sheer verve and energy of the writing, the world Beukes created. I really like what you say about Johannesburg being a character in the book complete with all those sights, sounds and smells. I read Zoo with my book group, and it was the choice of a woman who hails from South Africa. Even though she has lived in the UK for the past 15 years, it was fascinating to hear her perspective on the world depicted in the novel and how it compared with her own impressions of Jo’burg.

    It must have been great to meet Lauren Beukes. I’d like to read another of her novels at some point, probably Moxyland.


    • February 23, 2015 at 10:09 pm

      Thanks Jaqui.
      It must have been fantastic to discuss Zoo City with someone from South Africa. Did she explain things about the tradition about muti and all the traditional belief in magic?


      • February 24, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        It was two or three years ago so I’m struggling to recall the details, but yes, she did explain a little about the original meaning behind muti. I think she talked about it being a traditional form of herbal medicine in South African culture, natural products from trees and plants. In the book though, I seem to recall it being some kind of mysterious and magical drug – is that right? My memory of it is a little sketchy now.

        She also talked about the different subcultures and some of the sociopolitical issues within Jo’burg and their role within the book. I’ll ask her about it when I see her again as it’s been a while since our book group discussion. Zoo was a big hit with the group. Everybody loved the writing although one or two people wanted more explanation of the worldbuilding elements. Personally, I think that would have been a mistake – you’ve just got to accept it and enjoy the ride!


        • February 24, 2015 at 3:26 pm

          Re the muti, I meant to say ‘mysterious and magical power’. I think it has multiple meanings though…I’ll ask my South African friend.


        • February 25, 2015 at 10:48 pm

          Thanks for this, Jacqui.
          I agree with you, when you read that kind of book, you accept the world as it is presented. I would have liked more soul-searching from Zinzi, maybe. I wanted to know more about her, her past and what happened exactly with her brother.


  3. February 23, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    Superb commentary Emma.

    This sounds so creative yet filled with common literary elements. The atmosphere of the book, as you describe it is one reason that it sounds like something that I would like.

    The concept and the theme of the animals, reminds me a little of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


    • February 23, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      Thanks Brian.
      It’s worth reading, if only for the atmosphere, her style and the pulsation of the novel.

      I’ve read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This is different. The art form is different. When I read Philip K Dick, I was interested but remained outside. Here I felt engulfed, embarked on a journey with Zinzi.


  4. February 23, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    I’m really glad you liked this Emma. I tend to be careful recommending SF to non-SF fans, but this is an exception. The sense of place sizzles doesn’t it? Moxyland is good that way too.

    It is very much noir, which is part of what I liked about it too. I saw her compared to William Gibson for this one, and I think that was why. Neuromancer is as much noir as it is SF, and so is this.

    I didn’t take to her third novel, The Shining Girls, which I thought too well executed ultimately for its own good, but I definitely plan to read her Broken Monsters.

    It would be great if she wrote more novels based in South Africa, the last two being set in the US which is much more familiar to me, but of course she should write what she wants to.

    Oh, one last thing, apparently the French translator caught a plot hole and queried it with her, and she then corrected it. There’s something rather cool about that, though leaving a plot hole in arguably would be very Chandler anyway.


    • February 23, 2015 at 10:20 pm

      I read you SF posts and decide by myself, don’t worry. Usually, your reviews are detailed enough for me to have a good feel of the book and guess if this one’s for me or not.
      I had a good feeling after reading your review of Zoo City.

      I haven’t read William Gibson (of course) so I can’t compare and I’ll trust you in this one.

      I remember you didn’t like The Shining Girls as much as this one. It’s available in French, under the title “Les lumineuses”.

      So I’ve read the plot-hole-free version of the novel since I read it in French! I’ve noticed it’s better if I read SF in French because when the writer invents words or realities, in English I may not notice it’s not a “real” word. Plus reading about a world that doesn’t exist is difficult in another language.


  5. February 23, 2015 at 5:59 pm

    I bought this after reading max’s review, but haven’t got to it yet. I like the basic idea of having an animal permanently with someone–although I’m not so hot on the glue. Is there a limit to the animals selected? Is the idea that animals are subjugated for man’s use (my personal belief) touched on at all?


    • February 23, 2015 at 10:30 pm

      Sorry, I meant “glued” as a figure of speech and I can see how confusing it must be. After all, everything is possible in Zoo City.
      Zinzi’s Sloth is usually on her back with its arms around her neck. It’s kind of cute. They have a close relationship, it cares for her. It’s rather like a pet except that she can’t go anywhere without it. The problem is more that people see the “animalled” (like Zinzi and Benoît) as outcasts. It’s the judgement the society pass on them.

      The phenomenon of “animalled” people spreads but nobody know how. Max compares it to AIDS in the 1980s and it’s a valid comparison.

      The book doesn’t mention a limit to the animals selected or a proportionality between the size of the animal and the gravity of the crime. Imagine you’re stuck with an elephant…

      There’s nothing about the subjugation of animals in the novel. It’s a symbiosis, so both parties get something our of the “relationship”.


      • February 24, 2015 at 5:15 pm

        Ok, thanks for the explanation. That sounds better


  6. February 23, 2015 at 6:02 pm

    It’s a metaphysical event, so if there are limits they are unknown, it’s not even clear if the animal is random or somehow linked to the character of the person who gets it.

    I don’t recall the subjugation issue being touched on. Emma?


    • February 23, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      There is no clear link between the person and the type of animal they end up with. It seems random.

      Nothing about the subjugation in the novel.


  7. February 24, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    I’ll retunr to your review at a later date because this is high on my TBR pile.
    I just skimmed your post and I’m glad you liked it so much.


    • February 25, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      I’m looking forward to reading your review. I hope you’ll like it.


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