19) Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop – exploring dark chapters of region’s history

Jáchym Topol, photo: Barbora Linková / Czech Radio

The Devil’s Workshop is a short novel written by the award-winning author Jáchym Topol. It focuses on some of the darkest chapters of Europe’s history. Set partly in the wartime ghetto of Terezín and partly in Belarus, it addresses two crucial questions: How do we live with the horrors of the past and how are we supposed to commemorate them? The book, which came out in 2009 under the Czech title Chladnou zemí, was published in English in 2013 by Portobello Books, in an excellent translation by Alex Zucker.

I’m walking along with my back to the town, all those enormous eighteenth-century buildings far behind me — storehouses for millions of bullets, stables for hundreds of horses, barracks for tens of thousands of men. I left, like all the defenders of the town left before me. The influx of soldiers to this town created for soldiers had come to a halt.
And, without an army, the town was falling apart.
They sold my goats, who used to graze on the grass inside the fortress walls.
Most of them.
My dad didn’t live to see it.
I’m one of the few who wanted to save Terezín.

(The Devil’s Workshop, Alex Zucker translation, 2013)

Jáchym Topol’s short novel The Devil’s Workshop begins in Terezín, the wartime ghetto north of Prague, from where thousands of people were deported to extermination camps in the east. But rather than dealing explicitly with the Holocaust, the books asks us to think about how we memorialize the mass killing and the violence of the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe, says Rajendra Chitnis, an associate professor of Czech at University College Oxford:

“I think it’s a book that is using the very well understood and difficult case of the Holocaust to think about how we do come to terms with the past and particularly how people who live in that region come to terms with all of the past – not just the Holocaust, but also Communism.

Photo: Portobello Books
“Of course this has been a big topic in that part of the world since 1989 and I think Topol’s rather difficult answer is that there isn’t a way of coming to terms with these things.”

“I think his point is that human beings struggle to deal with the memory of terrible violence. And all of the strategies that we choose in the end are in some ways inadequate to the actual incident.

“And particularly I think feel inadequate to people who live after them. It’s extremely difficult for them to be surrounded all the time by the memory of these events. They find it very difficult to find a way to commemorate them properly and understand them properly and feel that they have done justice.

“It’s a very difficult and disturbing and disorientating book to read because I think Topol wants to give the reader some vague sense at least of the reality of that history rather than the nicely packaged version that we get when we visit the main tourist destinations in the region.”

The first chapters of the book are set in the years following the end of the war, when the former fortress town is largely abandoned, gradually falling into ruins.

The novel’s nameless narrator was born in Terezín to a mother who was a prisoner left for dead and a father, who was one of the camp’s liberators. He grows up wild and unattended, roaming the ruins of the former fortress town and witnessing its slow decline.

“I think perhaps the reason he doesn’t have a name is that he’s meant to be a kind of grotesque amalgam of the region’s historical experience. He is traumatised, but he is also amoral and very muddled.

“He is a kind of endless beneficiary of lucky escapes but he doesn’t seem to learn anything from these lucky escapes and I think in that sense he is meant to represent a kind of product of this region in this period.”

After the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, he becomes a member of an international community working to revive the town, turning it into a pilgrimage site for wealthy Westerners who flock in the former ghetto town in search of their ancestors. One of them is a Swedish girl called Sara, whose grandmother also perished in the Holocaust:

I wanted to work out what Eastern Europe really was, since we may look the same but culturally we’re different. So where is the real East? I wondered. The Slovaks all told me I’d stopped too soon – Slovakia was Central Europe, not Eastern! Same as those stupid Czechs back there, sorry to say, not to mention the Hungarians, they aren’t even really in Europe. I wouldn't go there if I were you, they won't understand a word you say, they explained at the train station information window in Bratislava.

(The Devil’s Workshop, Alex Zucker translation, 2013)

Inspired by the commercial success of the tourist industry in the Czech Republic, the community sets up a successful Holocaust business in the heart of Terezín, selling Kafka T-shirts and ghetto pizza. Their venture quickly starts to attract the attention of the media as well as generous financial support from all sorts of European institutions.

The second part of the book focuses on the less familiar story of the Holocaust in Belarus, but also on the period that followed, Stalinism and the atrocities associated with it.

The narrator is forced to flee to Belarus, where he is tasked to replicate his marketing success in Khatyn, one of the many local wartime mass killing zones, now largely forgotten by the Westerners.

Guess who had the most casualties during the war? We did! Guess who had the most people murdered under communism? We did. And guess who still has people disappearing, eh? We do! That’s the division of labour in the globalized world of today, damnit! Thailand: sex. Italy: paintings and seaside. Holland: clogs and cheese. Right? And Belarus? Horror trip, right? Don’t look so serious, for fuck’s sake! Arthur bellowed. You could tell he was used to giving out orders.

(The Devil’s Workshop, Alex Zucker translation, 2013)

Despite the dark themes it is dealing with, there is a strong dark sense of humour present in the novel, just like in Topol’s other works. In case of the Devil’s Workshop, he uses humour to comment on the absurd way in which we behave as human beings both in these periods and in trying to remember them, says Mr Chitnis.

“I would say that in this novel particularly it is quite misanthropic. I think that it’s predominantly to criticise us, and to criticize us all. I think we are all implicated in a different way.

Rajendra Chitnis,  photo: YouTube

“He criticizes not only communist and nationalist historians, but also liberal historians and he criticizes liberal democratic governments and organizations like the EU. It’s not like this is some conservative liberal debate.

“What he shows is that those who were alive were all implicated in the violence and those who lived afterwards are all implicated in our failure to remember it properly.”

The Devil’s Workshop, just like Topol’s other novels, is characterised by its distinct narrative style and inventive use of language. Topol typically uses first-person narrators, marginal figures in one way or another, who speak a  combination of colloquial language mixed up with slang and their own words that they use to describe the world they live in, says Mr. Chitnis.

“I think his narration is a really important aspect of the text, because it creates the character. We get a sense of the character through the way they speak. Of course Topol inherits that from Hrabal, but his narrating style is even more radical than Hrabal’s. He chooses a different set of reference points from popular music, less familiar cultures and so on.

Jáchym Topol,  photo: Jiří Šeda / Czech Radio

“In some ways his narrative style can be a barrier to his themes because you have to work hard really to penetrate it, but I think it is worth doing. And I think it is an inheritance of that writing of 1970s and 1980s, which was extremely physical and quite aggressive and anarchic, but also, as you say, very funny and very satirical.”

The Devil’s Workshop was written in 2009, at a time when little attention was paid to Belarus. One of Jáchym Topol’s aims was to point out that the oppression that happened in this country in the past was still going on in Belarus. In view of what is going on in Belarus today, that message seems more relevant than ever before.

“I think the other point that he wants to make there is that Czech national mythology is very anxious to tell the world how much the Czechs suffered under the Nazis and under Communism but by juxtaposing that experience with the experience of Belarus he is really trying to show Czechs that however awful they feel their experience wasn’t as bad as it was in Belarus.”

Photo: Torst publishing

Jáchym Topol is the most translated Czech author of his generation. For those who are not acquainted with his work, The Devil’s Workshop might be a good starting point, says Mr Chitnis.

Unlike many other Czech books, it doesn’t depend on local historical knowledge. It is a very familiar context that can speak to any country:

“I think also people should read Jáchym Topol. He is one of the best Czech writers writing today, and has been for a couple of decades at least. His writing is very distinctive, it’s very striking and exciting.

“It will be a different experience with Czech literature for people who are familiar perhaps with an earlier period and it will take people into things like the artistic underground of the 1970s and 80s. Jáchym Topol is a widely read author and this is definitely the place to start because it is a very condensed version of his poetics.”

Jáchym Topol (b. 1962), the son of the playwright Josef Topol and the brother of the musician and composer Filip Topol, is arguably the most important representative of the postmodern trend in post-1989 Czech prose.

He is a poet, prose writer and journalist, lyricist and musician. His books have been published in more than ten languages, and won numerous literary prizes, including the Tom Stoppard Prize and the Vilenica Prize for contributions to Central European literature.

Topol, who is rooted in the Czech cultural underground of the seventies and eighties, first published his work in samizdat form and has gradually moved from poems to prose. His first novel, City Sister Silver from 1994, is still regarded as one of the best literary depictions of the wretchedness of 1980s Czechoslovakia and the transition to freedom.

His short novel The Devil’s Workshop, published in 2009, was awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize. His most recent novel is called A Sensitive Person and deals with the modern European history.