Tel Aviv, February 2013. Photograph by Aleš Formánek
I’ve known Jáchym Topol more than twenty years now. To be honest, I’m not really sure, but I’m going to say the first time I saw his name was in a 1989 Helsinki Watch report about the work of human rights activists in communist Czechoslovakia. I was a graduate student in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and hoped to work in human rights myself once I got out of school. My coursework focused on East Central Europe and I was taking Czech with Peter Kussi, who was translating Milan Kundera’s Immortality at the time, and often infused his lessons with Czech literature. I caught the translation bug from him (but that’s another story).
To most people’s surprise, in November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and freedom broke out across the Eastern Bloc—“time exploded,” as Topol wrote in his pedal-to-the-metal first novel, City Sister Silver (1994; English translation 2000). The list of writers invited to a March 1990 conference on Czech literature at New York University was hastily expanded to include authors who wouldn’t have stood a chance of being approved to visit the States while Husák was still in the Castle, and suddenly here they were: A bevy of banned Czech writers and artists descended on Manhattan, and I got the chance to meet the young man whose 1985 verse about “a soul spread out on a plate / like a concentration camp” (a duše na talíři rozprostřená / a je jak lágr) became in a comically mistaken rendering by me and a friend, with our beginners’ Czech, “a soul spilled out on a plate / like a beer.”
I conducted this interview with Topol via e-mail in May and June 2013, as my translation of his latest novel, The Devil’s Workshop, was going to press. Dates in parentheses refer to publication of the Czech original unless otherwise stated.
Alex Zucker: You began doing journalism during the revolutionary era, in 1989, so for years you were both a journalist and an author. In fact both of your first two prose works—“A Trip to the Train Station” (1993) and City Sister Silver (1994)—had scenes that took place in editorial offices and the journalistic world in general. I think I even translated a poem from your second book of poetry, Tuesday There Will Be War (1992), that was set in Burma, where you had gone to report on the heroin trade. Do you think journalism has helped you as a novelist? How important is it for your writing that you’ve spent basically your whole adult life in newspapers?
Jáchym Topol:I have a love-hate relationship with newspapers, or working as a journalist. The first part, which I’ve almost forgotten by now, comes from the feeling of doing service, the feeling that I need to do something to serve my country, my homeland, my clan. I say this of course with a cynical grin, but it’s true. This is something that goes back to the past, all the way to samizdat. It never felt like enough to me “just to be a poet,” even if it really always was the most important thing. To me writing poems seemed just as difficult and important as, say, splitting the atom. It’s what I lived for.
But it didn’t feel like enough when my friends were being locked up and beaten by the police, or when I got locked up for a while and beaten by the police, which also happened a couple of times. I guess it’s a tribal thing, maybe East European—or Slavic? In that sense we were backwards compared to the West, where the people working in newspapers were journalists, professionals, whereas in this country they were mostly ideological clowns, if not outright hatemongers calling for repressive measures.
Basically, the existence of Czechs—or Czechoslovakia—was threatened under Soviet rule, it couldn’t be taken for granted, so it seemed normal to “get involved somehow,” to continue the tradition of resistance, like in the Czech National Revival, back in the 19th century, when they fought for the existence of the nation and the language. So sitting at home or in the pub writing poems wasn’t enough, I needed to write and distribute flyers, organize protests and so on—and of course write about things you weren’t allowed to write about, like for instance political prisoners or repression, which the regime wanted to hide.
In that respect the big models for me and my circle were two writers: Ivan Martin Jirous, a poet who did about eight years in prison, and Václav Havel, who, unlike the bohemian Jirous, wasn’t a roughneck and a hooligan and a pub brawler, but a fragile intellectual (though he did five years in prison himself). That was the atmosphere I grew up in. There was always some brilliant, valuable person and excellent author being locked up, so my friends and I assumed we would get our turn eventually—that’s probably where the interest in “public affairs” comes from. You could dream of living holed up out in the country somewhere writing poems, but as long as you lived under that hated regime, the rule was poetics is politics. Every free breath you took reeked of the slammer.
Together with my friends—for example, Zbyněk Petráček, now a columnist at Lidové noviny, one of the two biggest Czech dailies, or Ivan Lamper, to this day editor in chief of Respekt, the country’s best weekly, and a couple other people who are still journalists—I helped found Sport, a samizdat political magazine, and Revolver Revue, a cultural review that still exists though some of the founders split off after the revolution in ’89 to start other publications—so I can say without exaggeration that I had a share in establishing the free press here after decades of communism and censorship, and it was a huge adventure, and actually it still is.
I mention my friends who stayed in newspapers intentionally, since unlike them I have another life. I’m more interested in prose, far more than in journalism. I mean, I still have to write for newspapers and magazines all the time, to earn enough so I can take time off to write a book. It’s a paradox, I know, but probably normal.
But to go back to how it’s an adventure: Ever since I was young I’ve admired writers like Isaac Babel and Jack Kerouac, whose writing comes from experience. To me it seemed normal a writer should have to work with his hands, sail on a ship, go to war, be in prison—get your hands dirty in life, zamazat se životem, as Hrabal said. So by the age of twenty-five I had worked in construction, in a bakery, as a stoker and a coal porter and I don’t know what all. I was even a professional madman, after they let me out of the nuthouse, with papers to prove it. [Being certified insane was a way to avoid having to serve in the army—AZ] That was my best trick. It wouldn’t be so easy now under post-capitalism! So, after doing all that, journalism seemed like the most adventurous profession, and it was great being at Respekt.
I traveled all over the Czech lands, all over the world—Ukraine, Russia, Iran, Romania, Poland, Japan—I can’t even remember now everywhere I went. I wrote reportage, but some of it I also managed to put down in poetry, as you mentioned. That collection, Tuesday There Will Be War, worked out well for me in that I’d file my report and then, totally exhausted—and drinking just enough to get myself reasonably drunk—I would use the same experiences to also write a poem, and only then did it feel like I was getting to the true reality. Another interesting thing is that I wrote almost all those poems in another country—hardly ever in a hotel, usually in some hostel or dormitory. Newspapers here were really poor after communism fell, so most of the time I stayed at people’s houses or flats—acquaintances of acquaintances, or somebody I just happened to meet along the way.
For instance, I’ll never forget writing poems at a Vietnamese workers’ hostel in Moscow (I was helping set up a Radio Free Vietnam there, with my Czech Vietnamese friends, I don’t know how it turned out), or how I stayed with some people in a village in Ukraine (the residents of Czech villages in the Korosten District, which had been contaminated with radiation after Chernobyl, were being evacuated and moved to the Czech Republic) and they didn’t want to disturb me, because for them I was a somebody! A journalist writing a story about them for a newspaper!
If they had known I was writing a poem, they would’ve been: “What the hell is that?” I guess I had good training from when I was young and I wrote most of my poems in Smíchov pubs on stationery and old postcards. I would pretend I was writing postcards, since you were automatically suspicious to the working class if you were writing in a pub. You were either a nutcase or a spook, or more likely both. Just the other day I stopped by one of the places I used to write: U bílého lva, The White Lion. It looks the same as it did in the seventies.
But back to newspapers! The excellent photographer Karel Cudlín and I did a book together called Traveling East (2008), where for each of Karel’s photos I wrote a story to go along with it, and you can really see how much we love the wild, poor, broken East. There are photos and stories from Poland, Russia, Belarus, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, etc.
The stories I wrote for the national news section at Respekt were what I call, to borrow from Boris Vian, the froth of the day—murder, corruption, the porn industry. But I also got to write about the return of wolf packs in Slovakia, and a reportage on hiking the Greenland coast. So I came into contact with all sorts of people—cops, street vendors, every type of scumbag you can imagine, politicians—but also lots of “normal people,” whatever that is. And I paid attention to how they talked, and lived through more experiences than I can count.
So I just kept sticking my nose into life, and only had time for a minimum of the solitude that I dream of. Because another paradox is I don’t like the newspaper life and I’d rather be off by myself in a cabin in the woods—or anywhere else at all, really—and just write. That’s my lifelong dream, but I don’t know if it will ever actually happen. Every time a publisher has given me a stipend so I could just go off and write prose for a couple months and my family was more or less taken care of, I’ve appreciated the luxury of solitude. I wrote City Sister Silver (1994) in Germany, Angel (1995) in Germany, Thorn Girl (1997) in the U.S., Nightworks (2001) in Germany and France, Gargling with Tar (2005; English translation 2010) in Holland, The Devil’s Workshop (2009) in Germany—I haven’t actually had that many chances in the past twenty years! But as you see, I always got a book out of it—I’m responsible that way.
But I’ve always been freaked out by those stipend zombies, who got plugged in to the stipend system when they were in their 30s, and now they just wander from one art colony to the next and don’t know what to write about except their boring inner life. Every time I did a residency, the moment I got out I went straight back into life, and working in newspapers I really had no choice.
Well, the truth is the last two years, at Lidové noviny, I mostly wrote just for the culture section. All that traveling around gets crazy, and it was also sometimes a bit risky, what with my kids being little and my parents getting old. I didn’t want to be away that much, in case something happened.
But it’s also true I didn’t really enjoy the culture section that much. The reporting I remember—the people I met, the places, the colors—but those two years in culture are kind of a blur. Parked in a chair in an office, constant editorial meetings. It isn’t exactly real journalism.
One important thing, though, is that being a reporter paid the bills, books don’t. My work in newspapers has also helped me in one very important way, which is cutting my own texts—not viewing my writing as something sacred, forged in the fire of inspiration, but as material I can cut with a sword, scissors, even dynamite. That makes me happy, but on the other hand—and now I’m getting to the other side of the relationship, as I mentioned at the beginning—the other side of my relationship to newspapers and journalism is sheer hatred. I absolutely can’t stand it. Whenever I hear the words deadline, hed, lead, editorial meeting, it almost sends a chill down my spine.
It’s draining, exhausting work. When you’re at a newspaper, you’re like a horse in a harness. You can’t write a book. Besides, whenever I have the chance to blow off newspaper work for a while it’s always a huge relief to feel all the names of politicians and the day-to-day scandals drift out of my head, all that stupid crap that basically makes up a journalist’s bread and butter.
Now I have the urge again to do nothing except write books. I’ve got at least two or three built up in me at this point. So I’ll see if I can arrange it, I’ll see whether the right conditions crop up somehow. But I recognize there’s some sort of mystical chance involved. If the books are supposed to come out, they will. If not, they won’t.
AZ: How did you end up working at the Václav Havel Library? What exactly is your job there? What was your relationship like with Havel himself, if you don’t mind talking about it?
JT: Just now I was thinking how that feeling of needing to be of service that drove my journalistic work in the underground and the first few years after the revolution had all drained out of me. But my work for the Havel Library is definitely a service. I think the Czech Republic, as a country, is provincial and self-absorbed, and the Havel Library is one of those islands that creates a space for culture that isn’t commercial, pop, mainstream, or whatever you want to call it. It’s also a space where people can meet each other, where veterans of Charter 77 and the underground can mix and mingle with younger generations at the exhibitions and concerts we have.
How did I get here? Well, it’s going to sound a little melodramatic, but the truth is Havel asked me to do it before he died. I was out at his country house in Hrádeček with some friends, and we were talking about his ideas for the library’s cultural program. That’s my job, I’m the program director. We have somewhere between fifteen and nineteen events a month: readings, exhibitions, lectures, concerts, debates. It’s just me and three or four students—interns—doing it, but in the year and a half we’ve been going full speed, it’s turned from terra incognita into a “place to go.”
Of course I get all worked up about it, because if there’s anything I hate more than the newspaper business, it’s the literary machinery, the author reading system, the festivalization of literature, the fact that nowadays authors aren’t just read but maybe even more so seen and heard.
Because of my own books—and I’m tremendously happy they’ve been translated into so many languages—fifteen, I think, maybe twenty?—I’ve gone to all kinds of readings and book fairs to promote them, and it sucks you dry, absolutely reliably every time. And now here I am doing the exact same thing! The whole cultural machinery—inviting authors, organizing events—so there’s another paradox.
Most of the authors I invite to our library are from countries with an authoritarian regime: Belarusians, we’re having a debate on Burma this week, we’re friends with the publishers of contemporary Chinese literature, we’ve had Ukrainian authors. It’s sort of “Havlovian”—again, that connection of politics and poetics.
What Havel told me back then was basically that if I do the programming for the library right, I probably won’t have time for my own writing, but I’ve already written enough, he said. That was him, cracking jokes right up to the very last breath.
So if I whine sometimes that I’m just a poor program director and don’t have time for my writing, I just remember him and his time in prison, or Jirous and the time he did, and tell myself to shut up!
AZ: Your first novel, City Sister Silver, had, in my opinion, one of the most powerful texts ever written about Auschwitz, and yet almost nobody in this country even commented on it. I was surprised: a book so many reviewers claimed not to understand because of the foreign setting, foreign history, etc., and nobody said a thing about the one event probably every serious critic here is familiar with. What I’m getting at, though, is you told me City Sister Silver started an arc that came to completion with The Devil’s Workshop. Can you explain what you meant by that?
JT:It’s true, there was a whole heap of reviews in the U.S., to your pleasant surprise and mine, but the Holocaust connection didn’t resonate somehow. I don’t know why that was, but to be honest I didn’t notice, given that it got such a strong response elsewhere. Two days ago a book came out called Open Wounds. It’s here on the table in front of me right now, till I can get to the post office and mail it to you, and it’s a collection of about twenty-five studies—not reviews: studies—of my books. The authors are literary scholars—not only from the Czech lands but Denmark, Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia—and the theme of the Holocaust in my books—maybe it’s mainly a Central European theme, so that’s all right?—is scrutinized, often with such tenacity, erudition and sincerity that I can’t even read it without feeling slapped in the face by disgrace. I mean, I wrote those things from my imagination, channeling them, like a medium, I didn’t dig deep and ponder them. It’s like that line from Iggy Pop: “Instinct keeps me running, running like a deer.” And here are all these people with diplomas, professors with amazing educations, dissecting my texts and studying them. Anyway, Ivo Říha, who’s head of the Department of Literature and Slavic Studies at Pardubice University and put the book together, in his essay declares that The Devil’s Workshop is “an end point, the culmination of a specific creative phase . . . the final disemboguing of a search for the East”—in other words, as you say, the arc from City Sister Silver up to now.
Wrapped up in that are dozens, hundreds of trips around the ruins of the Soviet empire, with longer stays in Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine, a fifteen-year journey that led me, ultimately, to the graves of Belarus, a journey around the scars of central or Eastern Europe, a journey that’s now coming to an end for me. So when I look ahead and see your next question, Why genocide? Why the Holocaust? I grit my teeth and avert my gaze and blush with shame, and I don’t want to answer or look inside myself, but I’ll try to make it easier by writing about the tiny, concrete events that maybe pushed me in that direction, that shook my world in fact. So: Why Terezín in my last book? Why the black humor? Why does that theme still resonate?
First is my family history, to put it simply. My father wrote plays. In the sixties he worked in the theater and was friends with lots of people who “had something to do with the theater,” but also had spent part of their childhood in Terezín, so for me, as a little boy, during the parties my dad used to throw, it was normal to hear jokes like: “Are you going to eat the rest of that?” This is satirist J. R. Pick talking to dramaturg Helena Glancová: “Don’t tell me you’re saving fish heads under your pillow again? Ha ha ha!” Reminiscing about the “good old days” in Terezín, when at least they still had fish heads. Or: the stagehand Mr. Rappaport explaining to me and my younger brother how it’s crucial to keep your shoes in good shape during a death march, then busting a gut with Mr. Stach, another stagehand, because of course they didn’t have any shoes! “Ha ha ha, good one!”
That was the great atmosphere of the sixties, after the end of Stalinism, when people began to relax and get together and talk about things. Of course that process was thwarted by the invasion of Russian tanks in ’68, and little by little the hysteria began all over again, when every ring at the door could mean a search of your home, or arrest even, again that atmosphere that life as you know it could suddenly jump in another direction, and it was a natural process, like nature. One day when I was fourteen, my mom and I were listening to the radio in the kitchen and the trial of the Plastic People [of the Universe], of underground poets and musicians, was on the news—this was ’76, I guess—and of course for my mom, who as a child had listened to the show trials in the fifties, which resulted in death sentences, it was all too familiar, but the fact that these guys only got sentences of a year or two, I don’t remember exactly, for her that was proof that things were loosening up.
As for the black humor, which occasionally I’ve been criticized for, as Cormac McCarthy says, “Books are made out of books.” I remember one time I had just turned fourteen and I had a fever. Those were the best times when I was a kid. I’d get the flu and just lie in bed and my mom would bring me tea, and I’d forget all about stupid school and just read and read. And of course my bed was next to the bookshelf, and one time I reached up there and the book I happened to grab was The Society for the Protection of Animals (1969), by J. R. Pick, and my fourteen-year-old eyeballs almost popped out of my head, because it’s a raw black comedy set in Terezín, where the children, in the midst of this deluge of death, set up a Society for the Protection of Animals, only the animals they’re protecting are mice, cockroaches, and fleas.
As for Terezín: Ivan Klíma has a brilliant short story set there, “Miriam” (My First Loves), but his traditional, realistic writing never had that much influence on me. It was more that I was in Terezín with him—twice, I think, for a documentary I was doing about the flooding there with Czech TV in 2002—and he showed me the little room that he lived in with his parents, the place where the SS officers drank, the place where he got slapped by a guard, the warehouse where he and the other boys stole packages—the penalty for stealing was death, of course—it was a big package, and they were expecting it to be food but it turned out to be hiking boots that people had brought because they thought they were going off for vacation somewhere to hike around the mountains. Klíma had this polite grin on his face as he told me the story. He took me to the ramp too, where the trains took his friends away to the gas. He was one of the few, one of the very few children, who survived Terezín.
I was embarrassed around him after The Devil’s Workshop came out. I kept wondering, Am I allowed to write about those things? I remember I told you how after I finished writing City Sister Silver, I was afraid of Sergej Machonin for the same reason, a harsh literary critic who was in Sachsenhausen during the war. He was the first one I let read the Auschwitz chapter in City Sister Silver and I was so agitated about it, thinking what have I done, that I was ready to take it out, scratch it, bury the whole thing. But he gave me the thumbs-up, made a couple suggestions, so I was able to publish my first book just the way I wrote it.
My last book is also a product of my pathological mind, but I wouldn’t have dared do it all on my own. Another survivor whose opinion was important to me was Dita Kraus, who was in Auschwitz with her husband, Oto B. Kraus, a writer. And Arnošt Lustig, in his usual jovial way, after The Devil’s Workshop came out, said, What do you think you’re doing? I am the one and only chronicler of the Holocaust! Who do you think you are, you cynical little brat? He was ready to break my face. But when I had my first reading, at the Franz Kafka Coffeehouse, in Old Town, he came. I think he kind of dozed off during the reading, but afterwards he said it was all right. And Klíma wrote a review where he said my style was “phantasmagoric”—his polite way of expressing mild indignation—but that I had the right to do it.
So I want to make it clear that I may write my own way, the way that I want to, but the opinions of the people who were there are absolutely crucial to me. That’s why I’m so happy with The Devil’s Workshop. I killed off my own black nightmares, my paranoia and obsessions and terrors, but the ones who lived through it said: It’s OK to do it that way. As Dita Kraus said: “You can, if you must.”
AZ: Terezín and the Holocaust aside, though, you’ve written about other genocides as well—of indigenous Americans and Roma in City Sister Silver, and now, in your latest book, of Belarusians, and not only Jews, slaughtered by both the Nazi German and Stalinist Russian regimes. What is it, you think, that draws you to this theme?
JT:All right, since you keep asking so insistently, like a bulldog, about the one thing I don’t really have an honest answer to: My interest in what you call genocide—I would put it differently: in the possibility of survival in the camps—didn’t just come from me, but sprang, for practical reasons, out of circumstances, out of the times.
When I was doing Revolver Revue in samizdat—with Ivan Lamper and Viktor Karlík and Marek Hlupý and lots of others—we published all these memoirs, things like Marek Edelman’s interview with Hanna Krall about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, which had never come out before here. Amid the atmosphere of unspoken state anti-Semitism that existed in 1980s Czechoslovakia, we were planning to publish a list of the people murdered in Terezín. We were fascinated by people like Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz and talked about it on Voice of America, or Richard Glazar, who wrote about the uprising in Treblinka extermination camp (Trap with a Green Fence). But for us it wasn’t a Jewish thing, it was mainly about survival.
I wouldn’t want to be seen as a “Holocaust writer.” That honor belongs to those who lived through the horrific events of the Second World War and survived. For me it’s the curiosity and amazement of a little boy crawling through empty, devastated buildings in a little village outside Prague with his friends—in other words, nowhere near the epicenter of the war. The Czech lands were spared the mass murders that took place in Ukraine and Belarus. And yet: the buildings left behind by the Germans who used to live here, the dark and empty “Jewish streets” in the nearest town—vacated, destroyed, eerie. Islands of decay amid the enthusiasm of “socialist development,” attics strewn with papers—newspapers, tattered books written in unfamiliar tongues, old suitcases and shoes. Whose were they? Why had they left them behind? The atmosphere of mystery, the questions left unanswered. Officially, no one said anything, but you would overhear comments—from neighbors, relatives—about people who used to be here, people who’d been murdered or expelled. I put it all together later on.
So the first reason is my boyhood adventures. Then, later on, when I was about seventeen, my friends and I went on one of our countless trips hitchhiking around Poland, and one morning we woke up in these big concrete tubes, like the ones they use for sewer pipe. We’d slept inside them because it was raining, and the next morning it was foggy, a dense white fog, like in Amarcord by Fellini, and out of the fog this big wooden palisade emerged—it turned out to be Auschwitz, part of the memorial—but we had no idea what it was! And some guy in a striped uniform drove us out of our hiding place and walked us through the gate, through the barbed wire, inside, and we realized he was a former prisoner who worked there as a guide now. He led us around and showed us, four Czech long-haired teenagers, the whole time telling us these terrifying horror stories: Here were the barracks, the execution site, the gas chamber, and so on.
Jáchym and Filip Topol and friends, c.1980
It was gruesome, and not only that, we had a terrible hangover from the Polish vodka the night before, and the worst thing was, as children of socialism, we weren’t prepared for it at all. Nobody used terms like Holocaust or Shoah in Czechoslovakia back then, the extermination of the Jews was kept silent. The party line was the Communists were the Nazis’ primary victims. None of us knew what Auschwitz was. So my interest in what happened was the interest of a total savage who finds something out for the first time, something awful and terrifying, and feels threatened by the enormous lie.
Why? Because the same way I found out about the Holocaust, eventually I found out about the Gulag, too. I bought the samizdat edition of Solzhenitzyn, The Gulag Archipelago, the first day I got out of my three-month stay on the psychiatric ward, where I went to avoid having to serve in the army. Plus with all my older friends and famous dissidents, people like Jirous and Havel, going to prison all the time, the idea of a “final solution” seemed pretty damn possible, the idea that it might be repeated.
I guess that’s how genocide, the “final solution,” the possibility of one group of people just killing off another group of people and making them disappear—to put it in the most primitive terms—became an interest of mine. In my everyday normal life growing up, I was constantly on the lookout for signs that another Armageddon like that was on the way. I wanted to be prepared. Of course these were the feelings of a nervous wreck, an uneducated endangered animal. Fortunately history—on my territory at least, in central Europe—went in a different direction.
AZ: So what inspired you to write The Devil’s Workshop? How did Belarus end up in there? Why this particular combination of horrors?
JT:Belarus, that’s where my journey came to an end, that’s where the devil’s workshop was, the testing ground for mass murder. Not too many people know, but the Generalplan Ost was the Nazi Germans’ secret plan to liquidate the Jews and the Roma before going ahead with their plan to exterminate the Slavs.
The plan was never fully carried out, but still it resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe and Russia by starvation and disease—maybe millions, nobody knows the exact numbers—and the deportation and expulsion of hundreds of thousands more, with thousands of villages burned to the ground. In the Czech lands, by comparison, the Nazis “only” destroyed two villages—Lidice and Ležáky—in revenge for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, as opposed to just murder across the board.
Eastern Europe was also where they tested out the dušehubky, gas wagons, trucks they filled with people and then piped gas into, but most of the people were shot, beaten, and burned to death.
But to this day, these killings are a major political issue, which is why The Devil’s Workshop hasn’t come out in Russian yet. Because if you voice any doubts about the Great Patriotic War in Russia, you can be persecuted for it—you might even lose your neck. Why? Because Slavs took part in the mass murders. Usually the Germans were the planners and officers, but the executioners were Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, Russians. There were even two divisions from Slovakia deployed under the Wehrmacht in Ukraine. I won’t go into the details, anybody who wants to can Google it.
Some of the land there, in Belarus, is still ruined. In some spots it’s like the war only ended recently, and there are still mass graves all over the place, since the murders are taboo to this day. Meanwhile the murderers, some of whom were working for the KGB, received honors and big pensions, some of them are still getting them.
On top of that it’s still a totalitarian country: people disappear, dissidents are beaten and thrown in jail. Right now, this Thursday, at the Havel Library, we’re having a reading by Andrei Sannikov, a former presidential candidate and of course political prisoner, and as an introduction I’m going to read a letter Havel wrote to him shortly before his death. Nice, right? So how the fuck am I supposed to untangle myself from this history?
But as for how the book happened, The Devil’s Workshop, just when I said to myself, I can’t do this anymore, I’m done—not just with the past of Central Europe but also the present—I’m fed up, I just want to write about “the wonders of the world” instead of this horrible stuff all the time, just then my book Angel came out in Belarus and my friends there invited me to come. I didn’t want to, at all, but I went.
The funny and unbelievable thing is, wherever my friends took me—even in Khatyn, where there’s a memorial to the villages where people were burned alive—the dezhurnaya, the woman who stands at the door, would scratch her head and say: Vy z Pragy? Adin z vas tu uze byl. Pribyl. “Oh, you’re from Prague? There was another one of you here.” Everywhere I went, I thought I was the only one, or at least one of the few, besides my Belarusian friends, who was interested in how history blended into the present at these death sites, and wherever I went they would tell me, “One of you was already here.” The former ghetto in Minsk, the Museum of the Great Patriotic War (by the way, I have a photo of Allen Ginsberg taking his picture there), the Maly Trostenets extermination camp—everywhere they told me, “There was also another Czech who came. Pribyl.” Which in Russian means somebody came—byl / was, pribyl / came—but it’s also a name: Pribyl. It was starting to make me mad. Were they making fun of me? What the hell were they talking about? What Pribyl?
Then afterwards, much later, I’m back in Prague and I see: Documentary Film of the Year: Forgotten Transports. Directed by . . . Lukáš Přibyl. Unbelievable!
So everywhere I went, this guy, Lukáš Přibyl, was there before me. His mom had been in the Łódź ghetto during the war, and she steered him toward this forgotten chapter of history. We all know about Auschwitz, nobody knows what went on in Belarus. So this guy was suffering from the same obsession as me, at the same time: the forgotten deaths of Eastern Europe—that’s right. So where’s the happy ending?
Here: Today Lukáš works for the Czech Center in Tel Aviv, and when Gargling with Tar came out in Hebrew there, I stayed with him. We traveled all over Israel, and drank bottles and bottles of wine every night—I think to keep us from going insane from all the things we were talking about.
In September, Lukáš is putting out a book about making the film and his travels in Belarus and other places. It will have interviews with the last survivors, and I’ll be introducing it at the Havel Library. We’re like the last vultures and hyenas, picking the bones of history clean. And after that we’ll shut the lid on it. Or will we?
But back to Belarus and how I wrote The Devil’s Workshop. So at about four in the morning, a taxi driver was taking me from my hotel to the airport in Minsk. Unfortunately he was pretty drunk, so as soon as we got out of the city he asked me to take over. I refused, since due to my psychopathic history I still don’t have a driver’s license. He didn’t understand, so we got into this huge argument, and by the time I finally convinced him to keep going—I said if he wouldn’t drive, we might as well just go lie down in a snow-filled ditch by the side of the road—I saw my plane lifting off into the clouds over the little airport out on the tundra.
Now what? I didn’t have a bumazhka—no residence permit or visa—and the fact that I was friends with dissidents might be a problem: the usual paranoia. Were they following me? Would they take advantage of my mistake to lock me up? Was the taxi driver KGB? Classic. The next flight out wasn’t till about forty hours later, it was bitter cold, soldiers everywhere, and the TVs were all showing the same documentary, over and over in a loop, about the Stalin Line: another relic from World War II, a firing line of tanks and cannons along the Soviet Union’s western border. Apparently Lukashenko loves it, so they run it all the time.
I didn’t have any money, either—except, luckily, enough for a ticket to Berlin. And another stroke of fate: I didn’t drink or smoke while I was in Belarus, so I still had cash left over—about one euro more than the ticket cost, an absolute miracle!
So I sat there, filled with rage and gloom, and scribbled down the plot of The Devil’s Workshop in my notebook and on the wrappers of some Lyubimaya Alyonka chocolate bars that I had bought for my daughters but ended up eating all myself.
Then I went back to the newspaper, and after about a year of hard labor there I got a stipend to Germany—all of my books have come out in German, and most of them were written there too—and wrote The Devil’s Workshop on a DAAD in Berlin.
AZ: When I was finishing my translation of The Devil’s Workshop—I don’t know why, maybe because it’s usually hard for me to describe what a novel is about, especially a novel I’m translating, when I’ve spent weeks and months totally submerged in its words and sentences and I’m not so concerned anymore about the whole—but when I finished it occurred to me to ask myself: If I had to say in a single sentence what it was about, I’d say, “It’s about the cruelty of humankind and the kindness of humans.” Would you agree?
JT: I think what you write is exactly it. It’s about the cruelty of humanity and the kindness or grace expressed by individual people. And it’s also about love. Don’t forget, in The Devil’s Workshop the hero falls head over heels in love with three women in a row, who are—ach, slap me for being pathetic—angels. Plus there’s humor, harsh humor, kind of like crutches that are already a little banged up from the rocks, and the handles are all rubbed down and worn away from sweat, so we struggle to hold onto them, but they help us wobble along our way.
Jáchym Topol is program supervisor at the Václav Havel Library, in Prague. His most recent novel in English translation is The Devil’s Workshop, released in June 2013. Portobello Books will publish an English translation of his 2001 novel Nightworks in 2014. Alex Zucker is the translator of The Devil’s Workshop, winner of a 2013 English PEN Award. In 2010 he received the ALTA National Translation Award for All This Belongs to Me, by Petra Hůlová (Northwestern University Press).
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