Jáchym Topol Deserves Your Attention

Jáchym Topol deserves your attention. Through a punk-inspired, postmodern energy erupting from his Czech homeland against its oppressors, he conveys verve, intellect, and, beneath the trot of his clipped or galloping prose, tenderness, if in Central European precedent such tenderness is rationed out to each according to one’s own needs. From a dissident family, a poet and a reporter for a samizdat newspaper, he helped his nation topple totalitarianism, finally doing so in 1989 by the gentle but insistent Velvet Revolution.

Topol’s debut fiction conjured up diabolical vignettes memorably. He started as a rock lyricist in the ’80s, so his affinity for potent imagery shows. Out of 500 pages of closely printed, dreamlike, and dense scenes, the protagonist Mr. Novak and his heap of bones at Auschwitz loomed largest in his hallucinatory, bewildering 1994 trilogy, City Sister Silver (translated ably by Alex Zucker in 2000). Even in the original language, that first novel confounded native speakers with its disjointed assault. It lashed out at materialism.

Attacking both state socialism and market capitalism, expressing the rage of those growing up in one system and suddenly under another, its urgency reminded me of Joyce and Pynchon more than his Prague predecessor, Kafka. Think of the linguistic upheaval of A Clockwork Orange and the demotic fury of Trainspotting: in both film and fiction. Topol returns to English audiences for his fifth novel (it appeared in Czech in 2009), with his much more matter-of-fact, unnamed narrator’s voice channeled again through his Brooklyn translator, who captures Topol’s conversational, insistent tone intimately. Zucker dedicates the work to the author, “my brother from another mother”.

This short novel extends Topol’s political direction adroitly, and more calmly. It starts in the teller’s native town of Terezín, constructed in 1780 under Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, who named its formidable redbrick, stolid fortress after his mother. (While the narrator’s father claims Maria-Theresa, the last of the Habsburg rulers, “founded” the massive installation, that attribution is open to qualification; she died the year it was built.) Under the Nazis, Terezín became the “city for the Jews”– to show off their supposedly humane treatment to the Red Cross. After Soviet “liberation”, Lebo, himself born in the imposing camp just prior to its downfall, survives as its guardian, to protect the humbler garrison town against obliteration by the post-Soviet government, who compromises by preserving only the camp. Lebo and those who’ve grown up there, many children of the camp survivors, rally. “Lebo didn’t want to see Terezín reduced to a Monument and a few educational trails. None of us wanted that.”

A commune rises, forming a loose camp of its own. (As Zucker notes in an afterword, this anticipates Occupy and other movements: he translated this in the fall of 2011 in New York City.) The camp attracts “bunk seekers”, the second and third generations who search in the camps and bleak villages for traces of their forebears who had outlasted the genocide, or more often, that vastly larger contingent: those who had died. Haunted, their descendants must ask: “If it happened here, can it happen again?”

When I visited Terezín a decade ago, my then-young sons came along. Just before I read this novel, they told me that their most vivid memory was a sign for ice cream at the camp’s ticket booth. The juxtaposition of a place of endless deprivation and a symbol of quick satisfaction matched my own recollection; its interiors had been nearly emptied, after a flood of the River Vltava, and the emptiness of the cells and the lack of signs, furniture, or even other visitors added to its silent impact.

In The Devil’s Workshop, a similar lack of specificity or detail leaves the foreign visitor to the camp vicariously filling in imagined scenes, as the equivalent gap in interpretation remains. The narrator does not play the role of a tour guide. This may stem from the familiarity of this site to Czechs; it may deepen the detached nature of the narrator’s recollections about refusing to play to sentiment, as well as Topol’s preference for efficient, even dry, reporting rather than effusions.

Love, of sorts, is pursued on the very fortress slopes where the narrator once herded goats and now takes up with Sara, a Swedish granddaughter of a child transported away to freedom from the camp. “A roll in the grass was simple enough. And that’s all there is to say about it.” Levity or gush comes rarely to those raised here and those who peer into the shadows. Some sober pilgrims, descendants of the Czech patriots and Jewish masses kept and killed there, turn communal dwellers. “They knew they weren’t in a medieval castle, but in an abyss where the world had been torn apart, a place without mercy or compassion, where anything was possible.”

The narrator (just back from prison) and his comrades aid Lebo by appealing to the conscience or the bank accounts of the wealthy to sustain Terezín. They amass valuable contacts. For a while, this grassroots experiment in self-sufficiency flourishes: goods are sold to tourists and ingenuity brings in cash. Sara designs a popular t-shirt, altering a certain Czech writer’s image with a gallows and a stencil. “Theresienstadt: If Franz Kafka hadn’t died, they would have killed him here.” (This is as lighthearted as the suitably titled The Devil’s Workshop gets.) By such enterprise, and by restoring the mentally ill and recuperating the bunk seekers, the modest commune succeeds.

However, its commitment cannot fend off the jealousy of bureaucrats. Scandals around Lebo are concocted by an envious press. The narrator flees, soon after meeting an older arrival at the campsite: Alex from Belarus, often called Europe’s last dictatorship. Alex wants to turn the clout of Terezín’s online support network against the despots of his own post-Soviet homeland, still fighting amongst itself.

Sneaking away as Terezín succumbs to “cops and doctors all over the place on account of a couple of grannies” (shades of Occupy), the narrator escapes via Prague and flies to Minsk. There, Belarusians clash as the president declares martial law. In Khatyn, Alex, leading a team of seekers more feral and less coddled than those who could afford to frequent Terezín, unearths catacombs packed with corpses. Matuška, who had ferried the narrator to safety across borders, urges him to do the math.

Stalin’s henchmen murdered 90 percent of her nation’s intellectuals. Czechoslovakia and Belarus have equal populations, but over ten times as many of the latter were killed by the Nazis and their Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian collaborators. Alex informs the narrator: “The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them. That’s why you’re here.” Publicity and donors will enable Khatyn to outdraw tourists to Auschwitz.

The battle over who controls the remains of four million Belarusians, what such numbers mean to a divided and shamed country where some assisted and some resisted, and who grabs their share of the tourist trade and international assistance elicits Topol’s understated but firm pressure as he explores a touchy subject. This is one subject that all Belarus can agree on, and besides the income, this may achieve what a wounded nation needs for the living: the ability to finally let the dead rest in peace.

But first, their stories must be recorded. Topol dramatizes this in the latter half of the novel. Under the determined vision of Kagan, who as a boy made it through the ghetto and the mass grave, and Alex and their team of excavators in a land where all are bunk seekers, we see the results. Alex constructs what will be a museum unlike any other, out of a “Jurassic Park of horror”.

I leave the reader to uncover the resolution. Topol integrates real accounts of barbarity skillfully into the quick snatches of testimony, and to his credit for this difficult theme, he does not revel in the re-creation of suffering. Yet, this novel proves grim. The narrator stays fresh in Zucker’s translation through his everyday language and Everyman persona, but he must scurry about the settings the author designs for him as if fated. Topol turns an approachable character into a portentous archetype.

As with his debut fiction, Topol wants to merge ideas and symbols into his perspective on the current Central and Eastern European predicament, dealing with the aftermath of of pain and deprivation. In a literary tale as short as this, while the results are more accessible for first time readers of his work, the meanings threaten to loom too large for it to carry. As the narrator finds the terrible stories among what remains: “Soldiers come into the village and kill, houses and people burn — repeating over and over.”

RATING 6 / 10