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Interview: Jáchym Topol

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Jachym Topol is an award-winning Czech author whose prominence grew from the times surrounding the Velvet Revolution. He was a member of a nonconformist band in the 70s and early 80s, participated in various samizdat publications before the collapse of the communist regime in former Czechoslovakia, and gained popularity in west for his novels: Sister (1994), Angel (1995), Nightwork (2001), and the recent Gargling with Tar (2005).

In your book Gargling with Tar there is a thorough description of the Russian Invasion into Czechoslovakia in 1968. If I am not mistaken, you were six at that time.

Is your book based on your own experience or were you inspired by other people’s testimonies?
Yes, I was six that is perhaps why I remember it so clearly. The tanks, shooting, havoc, grief, hopelessness and fear of everybody around, I especially remember the hopelessness of my parents. Also, the change from the city to the countryside was pretty tough for a child. Bohumil Hrabal, in his Vita nuova, for example, describes Czech intellectuals who wanted to hide in the countryside right after the invasion. To survive the first wave. They were afraid of being sent to some GULAG in Siberia. Dad also packed our family and we left for his birth village.

Thousands of people emigrated immediately, did that cross your father’s mind?
To emigrate, like others, that was something my parents did not want. But you are right; I am not writing an autobiography. By the way, using a child protagonist is a writer´s trick, I can therefore use phantasmagoria. What I am writing is a fantasy book, not a historical one. For instance, I remember older boys shooting female screws from a sling. We were hidden in bushes by the church on the hill and tanks were passing bellow us, heading for Prague. Older boys were telling us about German tanks once taking the same road to Prague. Then, a number of captured German soldiers were dragged East – to Siberia into captivity.
(A lot of people were in concentration camps not as resistance-movement members, but as ruffians and poachers. Once, for example, a group of locals fought with German soldiers in a pub and six of them had to go to Mauthausen, just because of the dogfight. Because they won, of course).

It was allegedly tougher back then, right?
Well, the sons and grandsons of those “ruffians and poachers” were my best friends and “teachers“. They were the village boys, incredibly tough, and I personally preferred reading instead. Who reads is a jackass and does nothing. I had to keep fighting until I finally beat one of them – the youngest and the weakest one, of course. That was the acceptance rite. Another of their games was throwing a stick high above them and waiting till it hit them, knocks them out, strikes their skull, etc. He who dodged was crud and wasn’t counted on.

Did you manage to make a clear distinction between the Germans and Russians at that time?
My dad used to tell me how he, as a boy, saw a group of captured German soldiers. Some villagers would give them a drink, some would throw stones at them. And all of them would shout in the 1968 at the Russians: “you will trudge back the same way the Germans did.“ I remember the tanks shooting off a part of a station in Porici nad Sazavou. And so on. As a boy, I used to confuse the German and Russian tanks. For me, it was only the enemy here. Something commonplace, at least from the times of the Tatars. I kept the topic within me for at least 40 years…and it is only now that I feel like writing about it, because it is indeed history now… We feel as if warring in this part of Europe was a sci-fi.
The operation against Czechoslovakia in 68 was the largest tank assault in Europe since WWII, perhaps after the battle of Kursk. As a kid, I felt so proud. They were so afraid of us that they had to send five armies. I feel proud till now actually… with a smile.
Our own experiences, stories of eyewitnesses, readings, documentaries, news – all that does not matter, it is just material. It is purely up to you what you make of it. That´s the best thing about writing.

In the first part of the book, which is set into an orphanage, there are numerous hints of criticism towards both, communism and Christianity. Do you see any link between the perception of ideology and religion in the Czech Republic?

Also the leap in personal development that the young hero, Ilya, undergoes between the first and second part of the book might appear quite unrealistic. He basically changes from a naive child into a picaresque hero, do you agree?
The thing is that in the first part of the book, the boy learns to perceive the world through language – the language of the Bible, the prehistoric language. The language of the village was fraught with church, liturgy – the Christian community.
This was brutally curbed. The communists and the boys in the orphanage become victims of their own experiment. Their supervisors are veterans form the Eastern Front, who themselves endured through GULAG – as many other Czechoslovakian soldiers form Svoboda´s army, formed in Russia-USSR. And these forged cadres were exactly those who were to bring up new fighters. It may sound phantasmagorical and mad, but it does have a brutal basis.
We cannot speak of communism only. A similar orphanage for dispossessed boys allegedly existed in France as well. The boys were trained to become spies and diversionists, soldiers trained for the future war between the West and the East.
Even I remember the military school training during the Cold War, the endless civil defence trainings, the attempt to train children for atomic war.
As anyone from the former Eastern Bloc who now is around 40, I went through that. But it seems as if all lies forgotten now.
No, not forgotten, it is in the subconscious of each of us, so I conjured up the demons – and I enjoyed it. I would be mad if I hadn’t used it, given that I know it so well. On top of that, I was really good at military training. I excelled in hand-grenade throwing… I avoided army training though. Instead, I let myself be locked up in a mental institution. As there was Martial Law in Poland at that time, I didn´t want to risk being sent to suppress the Solidarity. As thousands of my peers, I preferred the asylum, which was normal.
I received a surprising number of feedbacks during the readings of this book – from people who went through the same military training, men and women, in CR, but even in former East Germany, in Poland – we all are now wonderful new people in a wonderful new World of the EU, but this is still in our subconscious. What is interesting though is that what the Cold-War children remember from these humiliating and often idiotic military trainings is the fun they would have in the group. Naturally, “displacing”, the bad, is a needful process, healing ancient scars.
I also played with old Bolshevik myths in this book – they influenced the fate and thinking of millions in the East, it was an obligatory reading list. For instance, Valentin Katajev´s The Son of the Regiment. Today, we don’t give a darn about it, but it is still there, deep down. The brotherhood of people, animals and trees…the fantastic Bolshevik idea of the beginning of the revolution – it sounds as an echo of the old crazy Russian sects – I was to a large extent influenced by Andrei Platonov – a great Russian writer, whose son was sent to GULAG by Stalin. Though little known, Platonov´s work left its mark on me – the mixture of the grotesque and fantastic, and the sheer horror of what social utopias can make out of people.
When I describe battles, like a tank assault, or scout work, or burial mould – the knoll – construction, I rely on Soviet-Realism writers who capture WWII, like Grigorii Baklanov, Jurii Bondarev, or the splendid Belarusian author Vasil Bykav . Understandably, nobody knows them in the West, not even the young Czech generation. But I cannot miss such an opportunity to write it down before it is forgotten.

Gargling with Tar has quite recently been published in English. For a Czech reader the book reads really well, particularly due to its frequent use of irony and subtle references which definitely ring a bell with a Czech reader. Were you not afraid that a foreign reader would not understand these subtleties in the book? Do you care at all?
But the book was published even in Norwegian, Polish, German, Dutch, Spanish… I really don’t care about the person whom you name ‘an English reader’ or a ‘foreign reader’, it is not my job…it is the job of a journalist or a commentator to be understood anywhere. I write what I feel and what I want and what I need to write and that is all I care about. I am not interested in writing a Euroburger and I don’t really need everyone to get what I write. I am not dependent on my income from a book, I can support my family by different means and writing is my freedom. It may sound proud and noble, but I don’t give a darn. It is more probably my incapability….on top of that, a lot of Czech readers were rather confused, I was even told that the book seems immoral and anti-Czech.

I see, could you be more specific? Do you remember any particular example?
When one man, during a reading in Olomouc, accused me of being cynical and making fun of tragic events, I ridiculed him and….then, I got to know though, that his son was shot by a Soviet tank and I felt sick of it. So be it. I had to do it and wanted to write it and I don’t care about it anymore, I write these answers grinding my teeth because I am already wrapped up in a different story.

The events after the year 1968 appear to be an infinite reservoir of inspiration. Still, aren’t you under the impression that this era is dying out? Particularly younger readers appear to be eager to look forward. How often should we look back?
How often should we look back? I have no idea. I do so as I need to, if I feel an inner need to do so. But that is not binding for anyone. Literature has no musts. Let everyone write what he wants.

Is this generation trapped in its own context?
Each generation is trapped in its own flow of events, its context, and that is to be solved, that is to be understood, that is a burning and important matter. Personally, I want to escape history…but till now, it has always swallowed me back. Whether it’s interesting for “the young” is of an equal importance to me as whether it’s interesting for “the British”. My books are published in Croatia and Poland and nobody asks if it is interesting for the Croatians or for the Poles. I understand. English dominates the world. I am not rushing anywhere…I am satisfied with writing for the old Poles and Croatians till the end of my life…I have to make fun of that all. The last person I think of when writing a book is the reader. I would, clearly, feel sorry if a few of my friends found the book completely stupid, but I can’t write for a particular person, I would feel as if I were pandering myself. My favourite Czech classic, critic F. X. Salda, wrote about poetry: “poems are not whores; they don’t want to be fancied”. That is what I like.

You worked as a stoker. What can you say after you weigh up the pros and cons?
When I was eighteen I mingled with workers, criminals and various vagabonds and I had to withstand that. This is what I described in the novel Angel. In one factory, the stokers would throw a cat into a furnace. Today it sounds terrible, but back than people had no modern tattoos but real Crimean tattoos and they were tough ones, but everything around was tough so it wasn’t striking. And one more thing, it is great to engage in monotonous physical work during which you can contemplate your own ideas. For instance, I was working in construction and carried bricks to the concrete mixer. I knew what to do and the people around were real experts. We started working every day at 6am and soon got into the right rhythm, into unconsciousness, and my head was full of poems. I was also fascinated by the langue of those people, slangy, full of wit – that was great.
Also, when I carried coal for the people, who had lived for decades in the same way, who were waiting for it so as they wouldn’t have frozen in those houses, I could feel the very sense of right action and it made me feel great.

Do you recall this as a kind of nostalgia?
Me and my friends often think of the time without mobile phones and email accounts, yes, nostalgia – what else. Now, my friends work as politicians or as businessmen and back then they worked as stokers, in some factories.
Another great thing was that once your work was done you could read. The fact that you are online virtually non-stop definitely spoils the day to day charm of every moment. I would work again as a stoker were the wages as high as back then. The thing is that these professions, manual labour, used to be well paid. I got out of a mental hospital, where I was only to avoid military service. Since I was a stoker, I had around 5000CZK – excellent money back then. I would never manage to provide for my family doing it nowadays.

Wait, was it really all that sweet?
Well, all right, I remember it as a romantic time. But sometimes, it was hard, awful, very hard. I used to break the sloughed incrustation in an enormous furnace in Astra (Wenceslaus’s Square). It was also very dangerous – I could have been poisoned. Once, I was already unconscious, there was a gas leak but other stokers came for an extra shift. Fortunately. Moreover, the cops could have arrested me there any time.
Still, it was not a life of a worker, one lived with his friends, absorbed books and lived for music. We had long hair and lived for punk, poetry, music that was crucial. It was also great to find out about others, to sniff out other interesting groups. This interconnection went on an on out of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, mainly into Poland.

On a slightly different note, what was the main impulse for your to stop writing poetry and start fiction?
I still write poems. I only have no urge to publish them. To write poems is different than to compile a book of poetry, as the words would be related and in-tune together. Maybe one day.

The interview was translated from Czech by Klára Synková and edited by Iliya Ansky.

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