x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Jáchym Topol’s Bohemian rhapsody draws on some dark moments of European history

Topol is rightly known for his stories of life in central Europe set during the Nazi and communist eras.

A Soviet tank in Prague in 1968. The communist years provide Jáchym Topol with much material. Libor Hajsky / AFP / Jun 2014
A Soviet tank in Prague in 1968. The communist years provide Jáchym Topol with much material. Libor Hajsky / AFP / Jun 2014

Considered the leading Czech author of his generation, English PEN Award-winner Jáchym Topol was well known for his work as an underground poet, songwriter and journalist before turning his hand to writing dark tales about life in his country during and after communist rule.

In his latest outing, Nightwork [Amazon.com], which is set against the bleak and violent backdrop of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the protagonist, Ondra, a teenage Praguian, is sent by his family to his father’s birthplace in the north, a village surrounded by an eerie forest in the wilds of Bohemia, with his little brother “Squirt”.

Settling into his rustic adoptive home, he tells his new acquaintances, a motley assortment of “Ruskie”-hating teenagers who live in caves in the forest: “There’s shooting in Prague, mate! I saw a tank. The day we left, mate! It was firing at the Patent Office. The machine gun smashed the windows, the walls. There were people inside. They were running down the corridors. Dad and I made a run for it. What were we supposed to do? Everyone was scampering.”

Later, in a scene that will remind some readers of Jerzy Kosinki’s dark and disturbing novel The Painted Bird, about a boy who wanders around Eastern Europe during the Second World War encountering horrifying human behaviour at every turn, the local women discuss an incident in which Jewish parents chucked their children through holes in the floors of the boxcars they were trapped in as they passed by the village en route to the death camps. Rather than rescue the little ones, however, the village women drowned them one by one, fearing there would be reprisals from the Nazis if they took them in.

One village woman, reminiscing about that terrible day, says to another: “They were slippery, those young ones, eh? Did they wriggle in your hands by the stream back then?”

Among the freakishly colourful cast of characters is a supernatural entity known as The Evil One, the real existence of which is unclear: “He’s not a dog, but he can howl, he’s not a wolf, but he can run so fast that you can’t see him, between the trees in a grey field, sometimes you can hear him when his claws slide over a rock or when he’s flying through the branches above you… and he lives off what people do to each other… but he’s a human being too!”

But the most implausible characters are actually the more realistic ones, mainly owing to the fact that the dialogue is so riddled with cheesy Britishisms such as “pillock” and “easy peasy” that people often come across like extras on soaps like Coronation Street or East­Enders – the translator, Marek Tomin, grew up in England after his family was exiled under communist rule, and it certainly shows.

Topol clearly set out to write an unconventional novel – and he more than succeeded. The narrative is rather disjointed, murky and cryptic in parts, shifting back and forth between the real and the surreal, and sometimes merging in a way that may be a bit confusing for those accustomed to a more straightforward approach to storytelling.

But those are minor quibbles given the book’s overall merits, particularly Topol’s descriptive prose, which is for the most part both elegant and evocative: “Thunder rolled over the sky, suddenly there was lightning everywhere above them, the lightning was splitting the sky, breaking it asunder, fiery lines lacerated the sky, it tilted like an enormous plate, a bolt of lightning came snaking out of it, dazzling them, slicing a pine tree in half, a chunk of the tree ripped out by the lightning strike hurtled through the air above them, sinking into the thickets by the footpath its end sticking out. The tree scintillated with quivering radiance, little sparkling lights slithered around the trunk like tiny purple snakes.”

Paul Muir is an assistant editor at The National.