Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2009

The Zookeeper’s War (2007), by Steven Conte

zookeepers-warThe Zookeeper’s War won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2008, an award I was most pleased to see introduced because it enhances the profile of our literature internationally.  It’s also a lot of money for an author, and hopefully that means that the recipient can afford to spend more time writing!

However, I am a little surprised that this book won the award.  It’s ok, it’s interesting to read, it’s well-researched (presumably) and it raises engaging questions for discussion – but it’s not writing that creates that sublime pleasure aroused by, for example, Kate Grenville’s or Matthew Condon’s writing.  There were times, reading The Secret River and  The Trout Opera, when I paused just to savour the prose, to delight in the imagery, or to admire the subtlety of characterisation or plot development.  Conte’s book is more disturbing than pleasurable.

However, given the shortlist, perhaps his win is not so surprising.  I haven’t heard of most of them, and apart from David Malouf’s Complete Stories (which I haven’t yet read) I didn’t care much for those for which I’d read reviews.  Burning In by Mireille Juchau; El Dorado by Dorothy Porter; Jamaica by Malcolm Knox; Sorry by Gail Jones; and The Widow and Her Hero by Tom Keneally – a strange assortment that overlooked some of Australia’s finest writers. 

Perhaps my ambivalence is inevitable given the subject matter of The Zookeeper’s War.  Conte writes about an Australian woman, married to a German zookeeper, during the Fall of Berlin. Conte is at pains to stress their ignorance of Nazi atrocities, not just towards the end of the novel when Flavia’s Soviet ‘protector’ explains about the Death Camps (p341) but we see also that they didn’t want to know. When Vera tackles the Major about the Soviets using rape as a weapon of humiliation, he responds with a catalogue of German atrocities. Flavia (p339) and Vera (p340) both want to stop him, because they do know; Vera knew enough on page 13 to ‘craft a life in which she rarely had to mix with Nazis‘, contact we can assume that she would only want to avoid if she knew about their activities. I am not very sympathetic to the claim that Germans did not know what was going on. They certainly knew about the systematic discrimination, the forfeiture of property, the violence on the streets and the deportations. It beggars belief that 6 million Jews were killed and that ordinary Germans did not know it. Perhaps ‘space and warmth nurtured apathy’ in Australia (p16); but it wasn’t apathy that nurtured genocide in Germany, it was well-established and community-supported anti-Semitism.

Can we with the benefit of hindsight be judgemental about this?  What choices would any of us make, threatened with violence to ourselves or those we love?  In the case of individuals perhaps there is a case to be made for isolated acts of acquiescence in the unforgivable out of fear, but when that acquiescence extends to a whole society then I believe that we can judge.  There may possibly be good reasons for one person to stand by and fail to act; but when whole communities do so, it is morally culpable.

Vera’s protest about the use of Polish and Bohemian Ostarbeiter (slave labour) is half-hearted at best.  In the end she justifies using them to help out at the zoo because of her loyalty to her husband and because of the needs of animals (which were doomed to perish anyway).  Axel appears to have no scruples about it at all – his reservations have more to do with Vera’s reaction:  

Axel could barely explain it [his objection] to himself.Vera wouldn’t like it, he was sure of that, but he could hardly say that he would be in trouble with his wife. (p33)

That Krypic is marginally better off under their employ is not the point.  There were some slaves in the southern states of America who were comparatively well-treated; but there are no circumstances that make slavery acceptable.  Time and again the central characters in this novel have to make choices between collaboration and resistance, and they never have the courage to do other than accept the situation.  When the Nazis are defeated, the values of these people collapse further: they join in the looting (p278) and Flavia submits to a kind of prostitution.

The war makes everyone distrust each other.    In stark contrast to the stories of British solidarity during the Blitz, the dynamics of the Stamm in the cellar show this small community at war with each other, and Vera’s neighbour  dares not risk friendship in case she is denounced. 

The issue of collaboration is defused somewhat by the parallel stories of the disintegration of German society and strains on the marriage of Axel and Vera.    Axel and Vera  don’t share the same values, for the animals bombed out of their pens are like pets to her; to Axel they were stock,  (p110) and the couple don’t communicate about things that are important: ‘Marriage had long ago taught [Axel] the importance of knowing when to speak and when to stay silent’ (p27).  The only surprise about Vera’s affair is the man she chooses.  Axel (p278) determines that ‘he would never be able to forgive her’ and the novel concludes with Vera equally determined that if she waits long enough, he will forgive.  (Whether he can recover after the atrocity perpetrated by the Russians seems unlikely to me; theirs is not a marriage that offers much succour to either of them. )

Is this a metaphor for how Germany hopes for rehabilitation?  That if enough time passes, the Holocaust will be forgiven?  By writing about the suffering of animals under allied carpet bombing, Conte obviates much of any need to depict German suffering during the war, a topic now apparently considered acceptable by some.  Considering German aggression, the ambitions of the Third Reich, and the nightly bombing of civilians in England, any complaining about their suffering is in very poor taste, analogous to a school yard bully bleating about getting six-of -the-best for tormenting other children.

There is much to think about in this novel, but I didn’t like it much.

Author: Steven Conte
Title: The Zookeeper’s War
Publisher: Harper Collins
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings


  1. I didn’t think this novel sounded like it was for me so didn’t read it. From the sounds of it, I haven’t missed out.

    I don’t think detailing German suffering during WWII has to be in bad taste. Of course Nazi apologists, Holocasut deniers etc who seem to only care about their suffering whilst trivialising or denying the suffering of so many others are appalling. But surely
    real history has room for everyone’s story.

    Unfortunately German civilians who suffered most weren’t always the most culpable. How many children for example died in the necessary but horrific bombings of Hamburg and Dresden?

    It’s a pity the first year of the PM’s prize was so lacklustre. I can vouch for Malouf’s Complete Stories,
    though, which was one of my reads of last year.


  2. Hello Sarah, thanks for your comment:)
    The problem is, that when we make space for ‘everyone’s story’, the story of the victims has to compete with the stories of the aggressors for public attention. We see the effects of this when a film like The Reader depicts a Nazi war criminal in a compassionate light.
    Not all stories, in my opinion, have equal worth, and we don’t have time to read them all. We had a great discussion about this Book on ANZLL so I don’t regret reading it, but I sincerely hope that other people who read it balance its distortions by reading Primo Levi, or some of the stories in the Makor Project as well.


  3. Hey, excellent review Lisa, I had very similar feelings about the novel. I was surprised considering some of the awesome Australian literature out there that it won an award…( this just backs up my continued skepticism of awards).


    • *chuckle* Maybe we should have a go at awarding an ANZLL Book of the Year? No money, just the satisfaction of knowing that Australia’s most discerning readers LOL admire the work!


  4. The whole idea that lots of people didn’t know what the Nazi party didn’t surprise me – there was no doubt a lot of propaganda about the whole thing misdirecting the general population about what was going on. And to say that the whole society was anti-Semitic is maybe a bit of a stretch. Obviously the whole thing sucked, but to blame the whole country is maybe a bit much.
    I did like the ending, though. Very nice way to subvert our expectations about who should fulfil what role as male and female.
    And I like that K-Rudd didn’t go with the obvious for the winner.


  5. Come on, Matt – wouldn’t you notice if all the Chinese people, or Muslims, suddenly disappeared from your city? What propaganda could there possibly be to make you think that it was ok?
    Postwar, the German government *did* acknowledge that their society had been anti-Semitic. There were some Germans who were not, and who did what they could, and they have been acknowledged as ‘The Righteous Among Nations’ by the State of Israel, see They were the minority. The fact that they acted to save Jews, and succeeded, shows that it *was* possible to act, and if there had been more of these good and honourable people in Germany then, the numbers murdered in the Holocaust would have been much less.
    It’s the younger generation of Germans now, who would like to airbrush their past away because they’re sick of it. And if we don’t challenge that, we end up with an airbrushed history.


  6. Lisa, you’re totally right – I certainly would notice that they were leaving, just as I think the characters did. Anti-semitism was a huge movement in early 20th century Europe. What I might not realise is that they were being shipped off to death camps and the such. Again and again, Hitler tried to convince people that what he was doing was “humanely” removing the Jewish population from Germany, even though that is clearly not the case.
    And let’s remember, Axel and Vera were pretty caught up in their own problems at this time. I’m not saying that no one knew what was going on, but the idea that Axel and Vera would not have is not that big a stretch. I think.


  7. But isn’t that the point? Why would anyone think it was ok for any group to be ‘removed’ humanely or otherwise?
    And while you are right that anti-Semitism was widespread throughout Europe, it was Germans who implemented their ‘solution’ with such ruthless efficiency, eclipsing anything the Soviets did with their pogroms.
    There’s an article in today’s Australian that says it all, better than I can…,25197,25115369-28737,00.html


  8. […] Place, and (having had a 5.45am start to the day) fell into bed early, nodding off with my copy of The Zookeeper’s War barely started… Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Tassie, what a beautiful […]


  9. […] that book! The research is demanding, and whereas Conte has revisited this angle in both his novels The Zookeeper’s War and The Tolstoy Estate, Chidgey found the writing of Remote Sympathy very draining and […]


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