INTERVIEW: Czech novelist Jáchym Topol

‘‘I don’t have answers - I have a novel’’
Jáchym Topol with Alexandra Buchler of LAF at Manchester Literature Festival 2010
Jáchym Topol's fourth novel, Gargling with Tar, set during the crushing of the Prague spring of his boyhood, has been described as a Czech Tin Drum. His books have been translated into many languages and he is widely known as ‘the Martin Amis-cum-Irvine Welsh of the post-1989 transition’. Gargling with Tar, translated from Czech by David Short (Portobello Books), was longlisted for the Foreign Fiction Prize 2011. At the Manchester Literature Festival in October 2010 he spoke to Richard W. Jackson about politics, history and translation: what follows is an edited version of their conversation.

‘I am ashamed,’ says Jáchym Topol when I ask him if he enjoys meeting admirers of his writings. ‘I have been trying for ten years to work it out. I find speaking and answering questions difficult.’ Speaking in warm, yet hesitant English, he readily confesses to using humour and jokes to evade questioning: ‘The serious answers to serious questions are in my books.’ This is true, as Topol’s literature is permeated by profound reflection upon the past, particularly the history of his native Czech lands: ‘All I have to say is there. My books are filled with serious thoughts. I don’t enjoy writing tours. I have been around many countries - Slovenia, France, and Germany: for a writer, it is better to be alone.’

It is a surprise then that Jáchym Topol is in the UK, to give a reading from Gargling with Tar – his latest novel to be published in English. As part of Manchester’s annual October literature festival, the event takes place at The International Anthony Burgess Foundation, a fact he is fascinated by: ‘Here we are, in my English home’. Curiously, we learn that Burgess’ much-loved novel, A Clockwork Orange, has been a great influence on him. ‘I read it, aged sixteen. It was an illegal translation, typed up on carbon paper,’ he says. ‘The book was forbidden in my country. I was shocked by the language.’ Not by Burgess’ colourful imagery, it seems, but by the Manchester author’s use of Russian.

‘Can anyone in the crowd tell me what Burgess’ relationship with Russia is?’ he asks.‘No? I was shocked and scared when I read these Russian words. I thought, “This British man really thinks this is our future.”’. I read him, bizarrely, as a prophet of the apocalypse.’

Born in 1962, Topol was aged six when the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. By this time a Communist country for twenty years, Czechoslovakia underwent a short period of liberalisation from early ’68, under the reform-driven presidency of Alexander Dubček. Seen as a threat by the Soviet Union, the invasion repressed the liberal reforms and normalised Czechoslovakia back into the Soviet-bloc.

Though Gargling with Tar concerns this period, he is keen to stress that it was during the proceeding years that life in Czechoslovakia became unbearable, ‘After the invasion we lived in a state of humiliation. It took a year for things in the country to shut down, in the 1970s the real repression started.’

Testament to this are Topol’s own experiences. Now established as Czech cultural icon, he has come to represent the ‘underground generation’ that operated clandestinely during the 1970s and 80s. Exposed at an early age to anti-government activities (his father, Josef Topol, was a Czech playwright and involved dissident), he was the youngest signatory of the human rights initiative Charter 77. Interrogated by the regime for his involvement in samizdat publishing – founding Viollit in 1982 and Revolver Review (specialising in Czech literature) in 1985 – he was also imprisoned for his underground activities, including a smuggling operation in co-operation with Poland’s Solidarność movement.

Gargling with Tar is a fantastical take on the August ’68 invasion. Chronicling the adventures of a young orphan boy, Ilya, the story is the child’s exaggerated and largely inaccurate account, or ‘not a book based on fact but a reworking of the past,’ as he himself describes it. Often compared to Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, the novel offers a bleak and humorous satire of what Topol sardonically calls ‘the greatest event of the twentieth-century: the Czecho-Russian war’. During the invasion, little resistance was offered from the Czechoslovak army. In the novel, Ilya is enlisted into the defence force, only to switch sides later on, when he accidentally encounters the much larger Soviet forces.: ‘I’m very proud of how many armies were sent to the Czech lands. I know through historical books that it was the second largest tank invasion since the Battle of Kursk,’ says Topol.

There are a few points in the evening when a sense of national pride appears in his words: ‘Of course I can be nationalistic,’ he says later. ‘I can be very proud.’ Yet, there is no sense of moral authority in his work. ‘I write for myself, to understand history’.

One reason Topol wrote Gargling with Tar was to present an event in Czech history that he believes has been largely ignored. Indeed, a problem he has is that today’s younger generation of Czechs have no affinity or understanding of their own recent history, ‘Czechs born in 1989 are now over twenty. This period of history is completely forgotten. I think it’s funny that the young think of this period as a revolution.’

Whilst he does not want to be the conscience of a country, it is clear he does write with a personal conscience. He displays a strong empathy with what Czechs underwent during the most repressive Communist years, and with the suffering caused by social and political upheaval in the region as a whole. Due to this, his work often appears to provide a service to memory and truth, perhaps preserving it for those who were not there at the time, but he says, ‘I don’t have answers, I have a novel. When I was young, history was a weapon… I fought for freedom, but now I feel like a censor. I am very lucky though. This book was appreciated by readers and even won an award.’

Later, he tells me: ‘I have a naive understanding of history. In 1968 I saw photographs of student riots in France, hippies in the West having a good time.... Not for us. I wrongly assumed it was like this in Czechoslovakia. The small’s boy tale is phantasmological’.

Certainly Gargling with Tar employs surreal metaphors and hallucinatory reflections. Challenging history through the recollections of a very young narrator allows unrestricted creativity for an author. For an English reader perhaps the most confounding aspect of the novel is the travelling circus that accompanies the invading Warsaw Pact forces, but Topol says that ‘the circus is a good metaphor, based on reality.’ Losing its way from the army, the idea of a circus roaming freely and haranguing Czechoslovakia’s countryside offers a subversive, anomalous vision of political terror. ‘In the Soviet Union, the circus was popular.,’ he adds. ‘Other art and forms of expression were restricted. The circus was not: it was a gift to the people as entertainment. It was easy to join the circus, and like gypsy culture the circus offered a possibility of escape.’

Topol’s books are at the forefront of post-1989 Czech literature, and as such are known and read across Europe. Gargling with Tar has been translated into French, Polish, Dutch, German, Italian, Hungarian and Norwegian. For a novel that concerns such a specific period of history, it is testament to Topol’s talent that he enjoys such a wide readership. When asked if it was his intention to inform foreign readers of the 1968 invasion, as with the younger generation of Czechs, he responds, ‘No - there is little understanding of Czech history in the West. Being an author gives me licence to write something creative.’

The conversation quickly moves onto the standing of contemporary Czech literature within the English-language market. ‘I don’t think Czech literature is undervalued,’ he says. ‘Everyone wishes to be published in English. It is impossible for all authors to be published.’ Indeed, Topol himself enthuses about very few: Markéta Pilátová, Emil Hakl, Petra Hůlová, Petr Placák, and Jan Balabán. Of these three, only Hakl and Hůlová have enjoyed English translations - Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents appearing in 2008 and All This Belongs to Me from Hůlová in 2009. ‘For some writers, what may be important to them in the Czech Republic will not be so in English-speaking countries. Some Czech work may just not be right for the English audience,’ he adds. ‘Take Balabán, who sadly died earlier this year - his short stores are right, and I would welcome an English translation. His novels, perhaps not.’

Aside from Gargling with Tar, Topol’s only other work translated into English is his first novel City, Sister, Silver. Published originally in 1994, it took six years for the book to reach the English-language market. For him, this is an irritating aspect of being a writer. ‘When your books are translated,’ he says. ‘You find yourself answering questions about a work which was written years ago – it is very annoying. The translator may not know the circumstances behind the novel. All these details in one head, and a writer needs to concentrate on writing.’

What else annoys him about translation? ‘The process is exhausting for an author, having to send letters back and forth to the translator, with lots of questions coming from many different countries. I had a problem with a French translation. The publisher wanted to use their translator, and I wanted to use mine. In the end they refused to translate the book and I said ‘OK, don’t translate it’. In the end they did; I won the battle.’

Currently undergoing translation is his most recent novel Chladnou Zemí (Cold Land). Winner of the 2010 Jaroslav Seifert Prize – the Czech Republic’s most prestigious literary award – Cold Land continues Topol’s lyrical reflection of Central European history, focusing on the wartime genocide in Belorussia. Again from Portobello Books, the novel should be available in English later this year.

Topol, as of yet, has not started work on what will be his seventh novel. Continuing to work and support his family as a journalist, he dreams of owning ‘a nice quiet place in Prague.’ Listening to him talk, it appears that whilst being a very active author, writing is a process that does not come easily for him, ‘My last book was written in Germany. The majority of my books were not written in the Czech Republic.’ Smiling affectionately whenever his family is mentioned, it seems clear that his writing thrives best when he is alone, ‘I prefer the isolation one can find in other countries, where I do not understand everything. When I go into a supermarket and everything is in another language, I am less distracted. It helps to focus on writing.’

Standing up from his chair, getting ready to leave as the interview ends, he remains friendly and talkative, even though it is clear he would like to leave with his brother and friends. Whilst the burden of history weighs on his work, he seems a little relieved that he is taking a break from such heavy themes, ending the conversation joking about secret police and spies.

Asked what will he write in the future? He laughs, ‘Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it will be something positive and very beautiful.’

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