I spent two months in Prague in 2009. It had no noticeable effect on my psyche at the time, but the day after I left, I started to have dreams of limping through the city as its pastel buildings writhed against the street and slowly reached down to smother me. The dream had two speeds: in the foreground, there was my racing mind, my frantic resistance, my desire to run; in the background, the arbitrary but inevitable collapse of the landscape, the impossibility of movement. The feeling of those dreams is, at times, not unlike the feeling of reading the Czech author Jáchym Topol. His work also operates at two speeds and speaks to a particular type of Eastern European exasperation and menace.
“I can’t stand still,” Topol claimed in a book of interviews of the same title, and his restlessness lends speed and urgency to the surface of his writing. His texts are a series of flashes before a vague storm; his characters spend their lives reeling from their thrownness in the world. Born in 1962, Topol belongs to a generation that grew up with little experience of stability, and the frustration, absurdity, and darkly comic sadness that come with such a childhood infuse nearly all of his work. He describes it with particular force in an early chapter of his first novel, City Sister Silver, published in Czech in 1994 and English in 2000:
It was the time of St George the dragon slayer, and I was a child cripple with a twisted soul and a studiously acquired schizophrenia because what was permitted and required inside was undesirable and dangerous outside. . . . I was to be the future that would pay back the humiliation, in this I was just like thousands of others.
All of Topol’s fiction currently available in English—City Sister Silver, Gargling With Tar, and The Devil’s Workshop (Nightworks is forthcoming in 2014)—revolves around people “like thousands of others,” crippled in advance by unmerciful times. Though the armies are gone from the streets, Topol’s characters are still caught up in war, a war without aggressors and without end.
City Sister Silver launched Topol’s career and earned him the attention of both the Czech and international literary scenes. Before that, he had spent his youth with the underground, writing incessantly. He also signed Charter 77, an oppositional manifesto criticizing the communist regime for its failure to respect human rights. Throughout the 1980s, he wrote articles and poetry for samizdat publications, as well as song lyrics for his younger brother’s popular band. In the five years before City Sister Silver, Topol published two collections of poetry, whose titles—I Love You Madly and The War Will Be On Tuesday—portend the concerns and tones of his later fiction. Since the mid-1990’s, he has been praised as one of the best and most important writers of his generation. Hailed as the leading contemporary Czech voice, he is among the most translated novelists in Europe.
Despite his preoccupation with disaster, I suspect that Topol is at heart a rather gentle person. A charming lightness tumbles through his work in moments of cheeky, impish humor that I can only describe as endearing. Unfailingly polite in interviews and admirably earnest in his political endeavors, Topol seems to nurse a fragile optimism. It may be naive, and it is not always convincing, but it sheds a sympathetic light on the irony and violence in his books. There is no clear salvation for Topol’s characters, but there is the hope of salvation, even if that hope, as in Goethe, passes “over their heads like a star that falls from the sky.” Moreover, Topol’s most likable characters must somehow be versions of himself: street urchins and rascals, little boys who might have grown up to be knights in shining armor, had there only been an enemy as simple as a dragon to slay.
The king of the urchins is Ilya, the hero of Gargling With Tar (Czech 2005, English 2010). Ilya is an orphan, clever and generous, concerned mainly with protecting and caring for his mentally disabled younger brother, until catastrophe strikes and he is swept up in the circus-zone madness of the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. But the chaos of Ilya’s life, the reliably bad timing of everything, appears to have been a genetic inevitability. Ilya mentions his parents almost immediately, though he cannot remember them except as blurry figures roaming about in a dark “Shadowland.” He is told that they fled the country on a bus because they “didn’t give a damn, not a shit, not one sodding shit about us. That’s quite common here.” And though he manages to grow up relatively happy with a group of nuns in their ‘Home from Home’, still Ilya spends much of his inner life in Shadowland: “Shadowland was my earliest childhood . . . . Sometimes Shadowland gave me a headache and I would hear a rumbling and buzzing sound long after I came out of it.”
Ilya’s only real inheritance amounts to this: rumbling and buzzing, the vague but unsettling noises of a past and indefinite trauma. Something similar was passed down to Jáchym Topol himself: he suffers from a type of hearing loss that leaves a perpetual ringing in his ears; he calls it “a disease of civilization.” It is a disease shared by, if not the entire human race, then at least that portion of it that lived through the European twentieth century. In his aches and his orphanhood, Ilya stands for a whole generation of Czechs: abandoned by everyone, trapped in a time-ditch between two equally unappealing world orders, and forced to bear wounds that do not quite belong to him, he would probably have been just as happy to stay out of history.
History, however, has a monstrous way of taking things into its own hands. In fact, Ilya is more resilient than most; perhaps because he is a child, he is able to avoid total disillusion and despair. The same cannot be said for Topol’s grown-up protagonists, particularly the unnamed narrator of The Devil’s Workshop. He suffers from a pronounced twitch, a post-traumatic tick that agitates his minds and bullies his syntax. He stumbles through his story like a man expecting to be assassinated. The Devil’s Workshop is a much bleaker, more brutal novel than Gargling With Tar, and more internally fractured. Crawling with sentence fragments, ellipses, and the common tropes of foreshadowing (e.g. variations on “little did I know . . .”) that read as a twitchiness in time, the novel resigns us to jittery discomfort from the beginning. It opens:
I’m on the run to the airport in Prague. Run, well, more like I’m walking along the roadside ditch, wrapped in a dizzying cloud, from my drinking.
I’ve been drinking a lot lately.
Now I’m walking along the highway. Every now and then I get down in the ditch and crawl so the cops won’t be able to spot me from their patrol car.
So they won’t catch me and ask me about the fire in Terezín.
The text jerks forward, with information either immediately amended (“Run, well, more like I’m walking”) or dropped in favor of a tangent (“I’ve been drinking a lot lately”). Furthermore the narrator seems to gain and lose the awareness of an interlocutor without warning, sometimes muttering as if to himself and sometimes conscious of telling a story. He is an unpredictable (though not necessarily unreliable) narrator. We sense the same duality in him that we sense in nearly all of Topol’s characters: a superficial quickness combined with, and distracted by, a larger, slow-moving sense of dread. Though, like Ilya, he is not a warrior by nature, war has beaten him to his own life. He has already given us the visual metaphor for his existential condition: teetering along a roadside ditch, dizzy and pursued.
The narrator has grown up in Terezín, the garrison town converted by the Nazis into a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp during the Second World War. His father was one of the liberators of the city, his mother one of its survivors. Found dying in a pit by his father, his mother is so traumatized that she spends the narrator’s childhood hiding out in a dark fortress of pillows assembled in the middle of the living room, “searching for a spot just big enough to take a breath, that was all she needed.” Though the narrator speaks of it with a nonchalance typical of Topol’s protagonists, his mother’s broken life is one of the earliest insinuations of the horror of the past, and of the ease with which it subducts the present under it like a continental plate.
Led by his mother’s friend Lebo, a Terezín native whose name means “or else,” the narrator spends his adolescence scampering through the tunnels and drains under the city, digging up artifacts from the war days. “Nothing rotted underground,” he observes. Everything is there to be collected and catalogued, and Lebo becomes obsessed with preserving the town as it was during the war, saving it, he claims, for the memory of humankind. The notion of preservation, the museum project of the past, gradually develops into the central problematic of the novel as Lebo embarks on a massive marketing campaign to revitalize Terezín and make it into a prime tourist destination. The road to the devil’s workshop is paved with good intentions: what could have been a heroic quest to save their hometown instead turns, for the narrator and the rest of the commune that grows up around Lebo, into a bitter capitalist farce.
Like most postwar Eastern European intellectuals, Topol has an acute sense for the hopelessly absurd, and the transformation of Terezín provides opportunity for some of his funniest prose. Winking at the Czech Republic’s tourism machine, he makes available for purchase a T-shirt reading, If Franz Kafka hadn’t died, they would have killed him here. Kafka makes another explicit appearance (though his specter is ubiquitous) in a brilliant description of the tent in Terezín’s Central Square that has become the hub of its tourist activity: “A multicolored T-shirt of Kafka flew above it and the delicious smell of ghetto pizza filled the inside.”
Topol’s humor turns more somber with regard to the pilgrims who begin to gravitate toward the town. The narrator calls them “second- and third-generation Holocaust victims,” twenty-somethings born into a cage of someone else’s memory and wracked by someone else’s pain. They have come in search of their own salvation: they describe
how they had sought therapy for their wounds, their derangement, how they wanted to be the same as their cheerful and happy peers, but couldn’t because of all the ghastly stories trapped in their minds, so they’d made a pilgrimage to the East, where there were still ruins that they could touch with their own hands, and how with Lebo they had found peace.
A crowd of foreign journalists camped out at Terezín publishes their testimonies worldwide, rejoicing in the “ethically unambiguous” issue they know will be “a hit.” As one of the journalists tells the narrator, “You’re in the heart of darkness here, touching the depths of horror, it’s irresistible!”
Our horror for your entertainment: this is the devil’s bargain that the citizens of Terezín are eager to strike. But the action in Terezín is only a prelude. The drive toward capitalist recognition, which in Terezín can still sustain a sheen of ironic comedy, grows in the second half of the novel into its ultimate, demonic shape. Chaos and disaster befall the town and the narrator is forced to flee. Armed with crucial information about the financial donors to the Terezín monuments, he goes to Belarus in search of Alex and Maruška, former pilgrims now involved in a memorial project of their own. The “fire in Terezín” alluded to in the book’s first sentences becomes the gateway to an increasingly infernal nightmare. In Belarus, the narrator enters the Devil’s Workshop itself, a “museum for Europe.”
The museum is a monument of Nazi extermination efforts, intended to undo the damnatio memoriae to which Belarus has been cursed. It is not only a deadly serious ambition, but also a competitive one. Frustrated by Belarus’ continuing political instability and poverty, Maruška and her colleagues want to put their country on the tourist’s map by leveraging its natural resources: execution sites and unmarked graves. “The devil had his workshop here in Belarus,” Alex says, almost proudly. “The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them.” As the unwitting pilgrim and potential savior of the Devil’s Workshop, the narrator is regaled with justifications for the museum’s ghastly exhibits, each more desperate than the last. A man called Arthur at one point exclaims:
Look at Auschwitz! Those whores the Poles, they know how to do it. A nice little hotel, bus ride from Krakow, tour of Auschwitz, lunch included: fifty-two euros, please…. And our burial sites? We’ve still got ravens pecking skulls, and the devil only knows who’s in those pits. It tears at a man’s soul. Arthur grips my elbow and I see tears have suddenly sprung to his eyes.
This is about the souls of our ancestors, he whispers.
Topol’s critique of the “Holocaust Industry” is, intellectually at least, his most sophisticated. Political commentary is never absent from his work, but it usually runs along familiar lines, examining the communist brutality behind the Iron Curtain, for example, or the capitalist brutality that took its place. The Devil’s Workshop touches on a rawer nerve. The paragraph quoted above is so striking because it tears through the entire range of memory discourses—memory as system of exclusion; memory as opportunity for profit; memory as universal ethical imperative; memory as filial duty—while exposing the tenacity and insufficiency of them all. We are appalled by Arthur’s honesty, by his blatant admission of jealousy of Auschwitz’s commercial success. But when he changes his strategy and claims that “[t]his is about the souls of our ancestors,” we are appalled by his altruism, his display of compassion that in context rings so alarmingly false. And yet we would not have to look far to find similar utterances from the world’s Holocaust memorial institutions, nor from survivors or scholars—should we be cynical toward them as well?
While as literature The Devil’s Workshop reads bluntly (Topol, for all his talents, is not the subtlest of wordsmiths), as philosophy it conveys poignant insight and admirable political engagement. Tongue partly in cheek, Topol will loose a string of clichéd questions onto the page (“What is man capable of? How come it happened to them, but I was spared? What would I have done if it had been me being led to my death? Can it happen again?”), but he knows that these questions remain unanswerable. And so when he implies, but does not ask directly, How are we able or obliged to live with the knowledge of the past?, it is with the suspicion that neither the passage of time nor the construction of museums will put a stop to the genocide, the horror, or the war. In an early chapter of the novel, the narrator realizes that it never occurred to him, or indeed anyone, to ask why Terezín must be so fanatically preserved:
And now, if I want to ask why we shouldn’t let this town of evil collapse and let the grass grow all over the long-ago death, all the long-ago pain and horror, why not just let it disappear, Lebo can’t answer. All I hear now is the rustle of the grass, all I hear is the echo of footsteps in the ruins, the drip of water in the catacombs.
Nothing comes out of the orphan’s inherited pain; it will simply linger on, in the soil or the body, until it is picked up by a demon and taken to be mass-reproduced to the benefit and blessing of capitalism. Topol is not asking us to forget, but perhaps simply to share in his mild surprise that the world didn’t end some time ago.
Jaunty apocalyptic shock is not unique to Eastern Europeans, but, Topol jokes, it does seem to be a particular speciality of theirs. “[N]one of you here in Eastern Europe realize how screwed-up you still are,” comments Sara, a Swedish woman whose parents were Holocaust survivors, in The Devil’s Workshop. “My dad . . . made it to Sweden, and that means I’m normal.” Sara is a caricature of the Western European liberal: educated but arrogant, kind but naive, she remains slightly haunted by the heart of darkness to the east. And the most maddening thing about it, according to her, is that there is no such place as Eastern Europe. Sara has actively gone in search of it, beginning in Slovakia, whose offended natives informed her that she was in Central, not Eastern, Europe, and that she should go to the Carpathians. In the Carpathians, she was directed to Galicia; in Galicia, to Ukraine; in Ukraine, to Russia, and finally, after traversing Siberia and the wide Caucasus, she arrived in Vladivostok, only to be told at the Sea of Japan, “Why, this is the West, the honest-to-God end of the West, this is the end of Europe!” And so, she concludes, “there is no Eastern Europe actually.”
Topol may approach the question of geography with more mischief than most, but his cleverness fails to subvert the tired trope of east/west incommensurability. Sara, standing for the western/rational, enjoys freedom of movement and hesitates to use violence. The narrator, by glaring contrast, represents the eastern/irrational. He responds with violence instinctively, and is historically and psychologically incapable of leaving the ungraspable east. Eastern Europe becomes, through this almost mythological anecdote, a place that no one can enter and no one can leave. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that it has a way of subsuming individual personalities.
Sara has very little personality; the narrator, for all our supposed psychological access to him, has little more. Characterization is usually not Topol’s strong suit. Since he tends to rely too heavily on schematic organizations of the world—east/west in The Devil’s Workshop, church/military-state in Gargling With Tar — his characters are reduced to stock figures of those worlds, representative examples, hardly to be differentiated from one another. Topol is interested only (or primarily) in collective psychology, and while he may be a keen observer on that level, on an individual scale his characters are generally dull. They are conveniences to the plot more often than they are convincing humans (this is especially true of his women characters).
The great exceptions are those characters with voices very much like Topol’s own, and his writing is best when it dispenses with the experimental concerns of fiction and allows these voices their monologues. Ilya in Gargling With Tar was one such voice; another is the narrator in a short story published in The Guardian in 2009 called “This Part of Town Is No Place For Old Timers.” The latter condenses all of Topol’s abiding preoccupations—the transformation of Czech society after 1989; memory; the dubious nature of artistic activity, etc.—into one sober, spellbinding piece. There is almost no plot to speak of; the text is being written by a man sitting in the touristy district of Prague at the foot of the Castle. He is thinking about death: the death of the neighborhood as it was in communist times, the death of a certain way of life, and the violent, political deaths of his family. The narrator’s sisters were recruited by the secret police and eventually murdered; his mother died demonstrating against the Warsaw Pact; his father, a manically depressed poet too minor to be considered a threat to the regime, dies on a hospital bed as his son promises, “I shall preserve your inadequacy, Dad.” The form this preservation is to take eerily foreshadows the gruesome plan at the heart of The Devil’s Workshop. The text is simultaneously callous and mournful, and one of Topol’s best pieces.
I referred earlier to the ‘two speeds’ of Topol’s writing. The first, a quick, agitated speed, can be observed in his narrative voice and choppy syntax (as well as in the muddled way he describes intense action). The second speed is that of the gathering dread, discernible not so much in the text as behind it. Doom does not arise out of the text; it precedes it. The farther one reads in Topol’s novels, the more one begins to feel strangled by them. It is difficult to say which are more dangerous to the narrators or their author: immediate political threats or distant historical ones. During Topol’s 2012 senatorial campaign, he was asked whether he was concerned that politics would destroy his ability to write. “Many people have said this to me,” he replied. “But I think that anything can destroy a man; that’s just part of life.”
The habit of living in close proximity to one’s own death—connected, no doubt, to the impossibility of mentally escaping Eastern Europe—accounts for the claustrophobic anxiety that permeates Topol’s work. It also, perhaps, encourages his use of obvious symbols of entropy and decay. Fire burns unquenchably in nearly all of Topol’s novels; pits are ever-present. Just behind the carnival frenzy trembles a helplessness before what must be inevitable destruction. Topol’s stories are picaresque adventures at the end of the world as much as they are explorations of unfreedom, of the attempt to outrun the disease in one’s own body.
At last, a note on Topol’s translators: Anglophone readers are lucky to experience Topol as rendered by both David Short and Alex Zucker. Short, though he sounds a touch too British at times, brought Ilya’s voice into English with such skill that we may still recognize Gargling With Tar as Topol’s most appealing work. Zucker, who translated The Devil’s Workshop, does a remarkably fine job of conveying Topol’s idiosyncratic slang and suggestions of dialect without resorting to affectation. The occasional awkwardness is Topol’s, as is the occasional poetry: Zucker has brought both sides of Topol, his irony and his sincerity, to us intact.
Madeleine LaRue is a writer and translator. She lives in Berlin.
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