Running by Jean Echenoz (trans. Linda Coverdale). The New Press $19.95, 126pp.
Running by Jean Echenoz is more a trial in fugue writing than a paean to athletics or the actual man this novel is based upon. This is an aberration as the novella has all the ingredients ready for bombast and loud story telling. It starts with the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and the Soviet emancipation and subsequent annexation of the Czechs. At the end it has a dash of cold war espionage and duplicity. The running events are filled with anticipation and doubt, excitement and nerves. And yet Echenoz is never interested in heightening the tension, as if to say there’s nothing important here. This is a story of a man and of a time that could happen again, that will happen again. Yet there’s a triumph of the will that supersedes such repetition. This is the playground of writers like Arthur Miller, where the common man—and not just the uncommon circumstance—is center stage. But unlike in Miller, it’s Echenoz’s decision to keep events monotone that makes Running paradoxically compelling; this is an exercise in not only reduction of plot and prose but of emotion. It’s a rare occurrence when an author can do that and still write a worthwhile book.
Running is the fictionalized story of Emil Zátopek, a shoe factory worker who lived in Zlín (later Gottwaldov in honor of the first Czech Communist president). He prefers laboratory work, improving viscose or developing artificial silk, but makes due with what he has. Every year his factory organizes a running event to occur beneath the brown smoke and seeping stench it emits. Called the Zlín Run, Zátopek hates it above all else, a point he has in common with his father: “A footrace, for example, now that’s really the cream of the crop: not only is it perfectly useless . . . but it also requires the repeated resoling of shoes beyond what is strictly necessary, thus straining the family budget.” However, this is Communist Czechoslovakia. Attendance is mandatory and Zátopek is forced to run.
He discovers he actually enjoys it. His form is all wrong, he has no plan of attack, but he’s astonished that he takes pleasure in the punishment of his body, training recklessly and recklessly running in one event, then the next, then the next. Zátopek is an anomaly, a paradox in a world embedded in Communism. On the one hand he is a Party member and becomes a diligent officer in the Czech military, in other words a man who doesn’t voice strong opinions and thus goes along with the flow. But he also has an übermensch side, that of an earthly god who doesn’t understand his powers. He “would like to understand the limits of his endurance,” but it seems as if he’s more of a product his factory would produce. He’s even described as such: “Running, he looks like a fighter busy shadowboxing, so that his entire body resembles some kind of machine breaking down, going painfully to pieces, except for the harmonious churning of his legs as they voraciously bite off and chew up the track.” In short this sounds like Anthony Burgess’s definition of his term “a clockwork orange,” another paradox of ideas.
Page after page, he creates a new world record and then breaks it. He travels from one Czech city to the next, winning competitions. Then it becomes international competitions. Then it becomes Olympic ones, including his ultimate victory—winning three gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki games, one for the 5-kilometer run, one for the 10-kilometer run, and one for the marathon (the first marathon he had ever attempted).
Echenoz employs slight irony to entertain and enlighten the reader throughout this history. A chapter begins, “Since the war is over, everyone rearms.” These turns of phrase add to the pleasure of a narrative that feels so familiar. Echenoz also delights in glorious reduction, which is summed up in a description of Viljo Heino, the Finnish runner who goes up against Zápotek at the Oslo European Championships: “Heino is there, the one they call the wonderful runner of the deep forests, champion of Finland and world record holder, the relaxed man of few words who has revolutionized the art of running by rejecting all stylistic flourishes in the systematic search for efficiency of minimum effort.” Echenoz embraces this style throughout, enamored of an exciting, simple structure and straightforwardness that channels Hemingway. The narrator continues: “Emil approaches him as if he were a god, timidly touching his legs as though they were holy relics; the other man, silent as usual, never looks at him once.” Zápotek may be uncertain of his running powers against a man who is steadfast in his own, but Echenoz never wavers nor shows any doubt in what he’s doing here.
In many ways Running is a surprising novella for the author’s confidence that his readers will follow his story without the “stylistic flourishes” that would make a triumphant athletic narrative like this one be a bombastic and loud read. It’s almost as if the narrator, through the voice of Zápotek, would have preferred not to tell the story. In an interview after a press blunder Emil says, “Sometimes I regret my fluency in foreign languages. . . . It’s not good to know too many of them. You must always talk, always answer.” Echenoz adds, “Yes indeed, Emil.” That final sentence has the narrator in concord with Zápotek, sharing the same dismay of always having to proffer an answer, a description, with unwanted show of aplomb due to his talents.
The events within Running might be climatic but for Echenoz’s always-commonplace descriptions, and even when Zápotek breaks records—which he does quite often—it feels as if such events were always meant to happen, that there was little to stop him from his world record runs. This is perhaps in homage to Zápotek’s own attitude, which takes these victories as inevitable. Nonetheless, this foreknowledge doesn’t take away from the experience of engaging in this subtle bagatelle. The reader will know that Zápotek will win all these gold medals, that the Communists will prevent him from leaving the country in fear that he may expatriate, and that cold war troubles will hinder the übermensch—a man that should be without borders but finds himself caught in a Soviet satellite. But perhaps because this is a running story about a man without form, one where the author has completely accepted and employed a particular form, Running engages like a fugue—certain of how it’ll come out but uncertain of the defamiliarized warps it takes to get there.
Salvatore Ruggiero attended Cornell and Oxford Universities. His writing has appeared in Rain Taxi, Powell’s, and the Five Borough Book Review. Currently working in publishing, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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