Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"The mass graves in Belarus are not for tourists" — Jáchym Topol and Tan Twan Eng with Jo Glanville about The Devil's Workshop [audio]

A week and a half after he wowed a packed auditorium in the British Library for European Literature Night 2013, Jáchym Topol was at it again, bringing his wit and energy to the world-renowned Hay Festival, in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, where he took part in a wide-ranging and delightful conversation with Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, and Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng, winner of the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize.

The event was recorded on audio, linked to below, followed by a transcript of the conversation.

Jo Glanville: Good afternoon, everyone. My name's Jo Glanville, I'm the director of English PEN, and I'm delighted to be here at Hay and to introduce on my right, Jáchym Topol, and on my left, Tan Twan Eng. A very interesting pairing of authors, I think, Jáchym Topol being a Czech novelist, Tan Twan Eng being Malaysian. But you'll see as we start talking about their recent novels exactly how much they do have in common. But let me first tell you a little bit about them and their work.
     Jáchym is one of the most celebrated Czech writers of his generation. His new book in English is translated as The Devil's Workshop — has a different title in Czech, which we might talk about later. As a young man he was active in samizdat, as a writer and as an editor in the underground, publication of underground literature under the communist regime. He has spent time in prison for his anti-communist activities. As well as being a novelist he's also a poet, a journalist, and last year he stood for election for the Green Party.
     Tan Twan Eng, sitting on my left, his second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, which is published by Canongate — now I should mention that Jáchym Topol's novel is published by Portobello. Tan Twan Eng's second novel, The Garden of Evening Mists, won the Man Asian Prize for 2012, last year. It was hailed by the judges for its stylistic poise and probing intelligence. He trained as a lawyer and he now divides his time between Malaysia and Cape Town. He's the first Malaysian novelist to win the Man Asian Prize and the second to have won the prize for a book written in English.
     So their novels, the work that we're going to discuss today, they're both very different in style, and in content, but have a lot of similarities in theme. They both address the trauma of the Second World War and the integration of that past into the present. Jáchym Topol's novel is a very brilliant and sometimes shocking satire about the commemoration of atrocity in Europe, and it's set first of all in the former camp of Terezín, which very notoriously was the transit camp through which so many hundreds of thousands of Czechs were sent to the death camps in the East, and it then, it moves between Terezín and Belarus, and in a way it's about the competitive memorialization of atrocity as the Belarusians compete with the Czechs, feeling very, very left out of the industry of commemmoration of the atrocities of the Second World War. Tan Twan Eng's novel explores the aftermath of the Second World War in Malaysia through the story of a survivor of a Japanese concentration camp. She's the lone survivor of a horrific camp, and she goes on to become a very distinguished, fierce, hugely independent judge who then goes back and enters into this extraordinary relationship with a Japanese gardener in an attempt to come to terms with her past, and it's set in the '50s, during the Malaya Emergency. So both very, very dramatic novels.
     And I wanted to start asking you both: These are both very original treatments of what is obviously a very, very well known historical theme. But I wanted to ask you first, Twan, what was the spark for you, the moment that made you want to focus on this particular area?

Tan Twan Eng: Well, as a writer I feel that if I want to write about a subject I should try to find something new about it, something which hasn't been written before. So when I finished writing The Gift of Rain I had some ideas floating around and I wanted to, I was interested in writing about the war from a woman's point of view and to explore what such a person went through. I had all these plot elements and ideas floating around and I couldn't tie them all together until, at a cocktail reception in South Africa, I met, I was introduced to a, the actual gardener of the emperor of Japan.

Glanville: Wow.

Eng: And we spoke for about five minutes. It was, he couldn't speak English and I can't speak Japanese so there was a lot of bowing and oh [audience laughs], so but after he left — and I'm sure he forgot me immediately after we stopped chatting — but I never stopped thinking about him and his job description. Especially the job description, it's such an evocative job description, isn't it? It's "the Emperor's Gardener." So it continued to resonate inside me, and I realized that I could use this character to bring all these various elements together to my novel.

Glanville: Interesting. And Jáchym, in your case, I've read that you've said, if you were properly quoted, that you're obsessed by the past but you hate it.

Topol: I hate what?

Glanville: You hate the obsession. I've read that you've said in an interview previously that you're obsessed by the past but that you also hate it. It's an obsession that you struggle with. Is that true?

Topol: Hm. It's complicated but I agree.

Glanville: You agree, OK. [audience laughs] So in your novel, it's very much about the preservation of the past.

Topol: Mm-hm.

Glanville: And it's a satire on, to some degree, on the lengths that people will go to to preserve the past. So you have, the novel begins in Terezín, with this extraordinary popular movement to preserve —

Topol: In Theresienstadt . . . maybe it's in every book, every high school, everybody knows what Theresienstadt is, the place of pieta [reverence]. And this city, near from Prague thirty kilometers, is in big danger to be destroyed because nobody has money for it. And it was the beginning of some very strange tourist industry, how to save, how to bring money to Theresienstadt, to make sort of Disneyland from these terrible places, these mass graves and so on. First of all, my English is far from to be perfect.

Glanville: You're doing great. So in your novel there's this popular movement to save Terezín, so that the plan is for there to be just a monument and a sort of educational trail, but there's this popular movement and it becomes this magnet for young people who are sort of —

Topol: Well, because I was working as a journalist and I was in Theresienstadt to write about today's situation. I was shocked because I met young people who were trying to live there, looking for their, how to say it, grand-grandparents, you know. And later I find it exists, the third or fourth generation of Holocaust, people who are looking, who are terribly depressed, and these young people they start, they create some strange komuna [commune] in Theresienstadt. And then I went to Byelorussia, then I went to Poland,
and everywhere I met people like this, and so on. It was long time of never-ending travels.

Glanville: And you called your name, the name for these young people who were absolutely obsessed with that past, with their grandparents' past, who come and stay and live in Theresienstadt. You call them — in English, in translation — the "bunk seekers."

Topol: Yes, yes. In Czech it's hledači pryčen. So it sounds terrible. These people are mostly very — how to say it? — intellectuals. They love to read Franz Kafka and some strange sort of mysticism, so it was not easy.

Glanville: And in fact one of the young people in your book has the idea of marketing — well, not marketing, they make T-shirts that say, "If Kafka hadn't died, they would have killed him here." [audience laughs]

Topol: Yeah, it's because in Prague — I am from Prague, and for every writer who is born in Prague, Franz Kafka is something like a burden. He's like my father, you know, and he hates his son — it's very complicated. And in Prague there is also other tourist industry: T-shirt with Franz Kafka. Nobody reading, so . . . so we have T-shirt with Franz Kafka and with Václav Havel.

Glanville: And that's it. Twan, I wanted to ask you, is there around the — because there is this extraordinary, what Jáchym sort of makes in his book, really, a kind of cult of memorialization. Is there anything similar in Malaysia around what happened with the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps?

Eng: It's actually the complete opposite. Nobody remembers or is interested in it. Friends who are my age, my friends and my contemporaries, they are quite unaware of what happened and frankly they're not interested in it at all. When The Gift of Rain was published and they felt duty-bound — that's my first book — they felt duty-bound to read my book. I told them, "You can buy it, you don't have to read it, I don't care." [audience laughs] But they did read it and they said, "Did all this really happen? Or are you talking nonsense as usual again?" And that's what I find so sad, this total lack of interest in the history, in our own history, so it's refreshing to hear Jáchym talk about this, that the young people in Prague are so into it.

Glanville: But that's a very, very, very big contrast with Europe then, because it has been called an industry, a Holocaust industry, the extent to which there is certainly an unending obsession and fascination with the Holocaust and the memorialization of buildings and camps and —

Topol: Ghetto pizza, for example. No, sorry. Part of industry.

Glanville: Yes. So if you went to Malaysia and you wanted to find those scenes of where the camps were, there would be nothing, no museums, nothing preserved?

Eng: Yeah, there would be something, there would be a shopping mall or a Starbucks there. [audience laughs] The past is basically obliterated in Malaysia. It's not because we want to forget or because we can't bear thinking about it. For some reason it's . . . I suppose we're a pragmatic lot. We feel that it's over. It's over and there's no point thinking about it and feeling the pain again. So we just go on living our lives, and this is especially true for the younger generation. They're more interested in technology and what's the latest cellphone to have than what their grandparents went through.

Glanville: But obviously it's very important to you. I mean your first novel looked at this subject. Your second novel does as well. So where does that come from then, if it's not encouraged in the culture but for you it's obviously something very important.

Eng: Well, I've always been interested in history and that period of Malaysian history, and for me the Japanese occupation is such a clear thick line dividing the past from the future in that it really signaled the end of the British Empire in Asia, and after the war, all the countries in southeast Asia, all of them, started fighting for independence. Each one fell and it was like a domino effect. The entire region became independent. So this clear line, it's so obvious and distinct. It's a rich field for a novelist — and a historian — to explore and to understand.

Glanville: Jáchym, in your book, with the bunk seekers in Theresienstadt, and then the scene moves. I don't want to spoil the shocking moments of Jáchym's book, but it moves to Belarus where there's fury amongst the Belarusians because their suffering is completely ignored, and there's a scene where one of your characters says, "Four million. Four million were murdered in Belarus," and it's compared with Theresienstadt's hundreds of thousands. But what seems to come out is they are fanatics on either side —

Topol: Well, I am not historian, you know. I am not scientist, you know. I am not educated, you know. And after 1989, which is the year of so-called East European revolutions, I was trying to travel like crazy. And I was terribly shocked because I was thinking the Second [World] War, "Oh my God, it's like Julius Caesar, it's over." But when I was traveling into the East — Poland, Byelorussia, Ukraine — I find it's not so long time ago. And there are some terrible things, you know. I think your book and my book are like the dark rooms of humanity, you know. We are trying to make jokes, we are trying to be ironic, because, you know, there is the sun and children are playing — we do not want to make depression. But I think the books are full of depression. You know, after all this traveling, I find that in Byelorussia was real devil's workshop. Why? Because during the Second [World] War the Nazis killed all Jews and all Gypsy people, Roma people. Then they start to begin the so-called Plan Ost. It was genocide of Slavic people. And why my book is not published in Russia? Because it's still political issue. Why? Because the so-called engineers of this plan were Germans, but the people with bloody hands were Polish people, Russian people, Slovak people, Baltic people, and some of them still live, you know? I am not scientist, no university, but I was traveling, and talking with the people, and if you are in Byelorussia or in Russia you should know how to drink, and I know how to drink. [audience laughs] Now I stop it. Two days ago I stop smoking and drinking because [audience laughs] — yes, I am not kidding — and I feel very good — and so I am talking about vodka, because if you like to make real friendship, it's not from meetings like this or from universities, but you sit somewhere, in the forest, in some small place, and you are drinking. And then you're making friendship. "Friend, come on, I'll show you something." And you could see mass grave. And it's not for tourists.

Glanville: What can you see?

Topol: You know, there are still some places, the dark places, and it's not only somewhere in the East. For example, Czech-German border, or Polish-German border, Polish-Ukrainian border. You still have places where are real mass graves. And nobody exactly knows who is inside. People killed by KGB? People killed by Nazis? Jewish people killed by Soviets? Soviets killed by Germans? And some of these places are in Byelorussia, some are in the forest. And because Byelorussia is still today totalitarian country, it's a big secret. But maybe you could read it. You know, my English is very poor. And it's also love story. [audience laughs]

Glanville: Yes, I mean, it is a love story. And there's more than one love in the story. So. I want to come back to Belarus in a moment, but I want to just want to ask Twan: We hear over and over and over, when talking about atrocities, the atrocities we're talking about, that memory is crucial, that we have to remember, and the idea obviously is that remembering will stop such things from happening, and we all kind of know that's not true. But in your book, memory is absolutely central. The character who survived the Japanese war camp is losing her memory, isn't she, and so is desperate for everything to be remembered. So I'm wondering, there as well, how important is that act of remembrance and of recording for you?

Eng: Well, the character is not exactly losing her memory but she's suffering from aphasia, which is the condition where she starts to lose the ability to recognize written and spoken language. So one day she's going to wake up and realize that all the signboards and everything that she sees, she won't know what it means, and what people tell her she won't understand. But central to the entire book is the theme of memory, because each of us want to protect and safeguard our memories, good or bad, because that's what makes who we are. There's a line in my book where I say, "For what are we without memories? Ghosts trapped between two worlds." And it's very important that this act of personal memory is also reflected in society as well. There are things that we should remember, there are things that we should never forget.

Glanville: But does it do harm to Malaysia, do you think, that there isn't the commemoration of what we were talking about, the Japanese camps, that there is for example in Europe. Does that do harm, do you think?

Eng: I don't think so. First of all, there's no commemoration to start with. Every year there's a small group of Australian servicemen and they'll come, to some little town somewhere in Malaysia, and they will hold a very small and quiet ceremony, which is not supported or organized by anyone in the Malaysian government. So it's a private affair. And every year whenever I see a small report, it seems they're all growing older and older
and the number is lessening. So it doesn't impact on our lives or on the relationships at all between Malaysia and Japan. Ironically, in the mid '80s, our prime minister had this policy called "Look East" policy, where we were all encouraged to emulate the Japanese — in their work habits, their discipline, and to understand their culture — and students were sent to Japanese universities to understand them. So it's a very strange thing that I find that we've had this horrible thing happening to us and yet we seem to have overcome that.

Glanville: That's very interesting. Jáchym, I just want to come back to Belarus and what you were saying earlier, you know, that it's a totalitarian state. It's often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. And I'm wondering how much you think that that denial of the past that you were talking about helps to maintain that?

Topol: The past. Maybe it's very complicated for you. Because I think my area, Central Europe, so-called East Europe, is still today very different from so-called West Europe. We are European Union. But the past is very different, you know? I mean the communism, the Stalinism. And maybe this Central Europe, or East Europe, for you is exotic like Malaysia for me. Because you could travel, and you have mobile [phone], e-mails, everything works. But there is something inside the people, some old fear, you know? These old crimes are still hidden somewhere. Because these forty years of communism, they were bloody years, you know. And especially in '50s. Especially in my country, Czechoslovakia, there were lot of people executed, or thousands were in prison. And when I am here and when I am talking for example with some British writers or Dutch writers or French writers, I think, Oh, you could write a story from countryside, love story from '50s — I can't. I must write about secret police, you know? So boring! [audience laughs]

Glanville: But the Western writers will have an envy of you for having that to write about.

Topol: I envy, you know — yeah, because you could write about life, you know? I must write all the time, you know, about this secret police and it's horrible. But you have Orwell, you have George Orwell!

Glanville: We do have Orwell. Very proud of him. If we're talking about, in your book and in Twan's book, the commemoration of the fascist Nazi past in which there was obviously —

Topol: Mixed with communism. Special case.

Glanville: Mixed with communism — I was going to say. Is your book also then about commemoration of the communist atrocity?

Topol: Yeah.

Glanville: It is?

Topol: Yes, it is.

Glanville: Yes. OK. And you also, one very interesting point you made in your book, was that Belarus would not be allowed to join the EU if it — obviously it can't join now, but even without its dictatorship, it couldn't join because of the state of the mass graves, which I thought was very interesting.

Topol: Mm-hm. But maybe, you know, in my book everything is based on reality, but it's reality phantasmagory, you know? For example in the book I am describing this civil war in Byelorussia. And when the book was some few Byelarus people, dissidents from Byelorussia, they are reading my book, they say, I hope you are [???]. But I am not! Part of it is fantasy, but small part. George Orwell, you know, he was my teacher! And when I was 25 I was smuggling through the Polish and Czechoslovak border, in the winter — it was like from Jack London story — I was smuggling kilograms of books, you know, which were forbidden in my country. And George Orwell was among it, 1984.

Glanville: Where were you smuggling them from?

Topol: From Poland. Because in Poland the situation was much better. In Czechoslovakia in 1988 it was more cruel.

Glanville: And when you were sent to prison, were you sent to prison for smuggling?

Topol: I was in prison for smuggling? [audience laughs] It was short time.

Glanville: Yeah, you were.

Topol: I was in prison also for smuggling, but only short time. It was funny, because the Polish borders stop us: "Show me. Show me." And they were thinking we are smuggling vodka and sausage. But we were smuggling books. If you are smuggling vodka and sausage, you are giving something to the Polish, so they are happy. But if you have book, you are going to prison.

Glanville: Twan, I wanted to ask you about the central character of your book. She's an extraordinary woman. And she's quite difficult to like, I think. She's clearly made of steel. She's survived this camp. She becomes a judge. And she's quite a merciless judge as well, amongst the people who come before her are the communists who are fighting against the government in the insurgency and she has no qualms about sending them to their deaths. So I wondered what your thinking was about making this character who — I think by the end of the book, one has enormous sympathy for her, but she's quite hard to like as a person, isn't she?

Eng: It was a challenge I wanted to set myself, to create an unlikable character. Because I've often read reviews of other people's books and the main complaint was "such unlikable characters." [laughs] I thought, So? What's wrong with that? Unlikable characters, it's up to the writer to make them interesting. So when I started The Garden of Evening Mists, I wanted this very hard woman, because of what she had gone through. Now she and her sister were sent to a POW camp, and her sister died, and only she survived. You'll find out why she was the sole survivor. And because of this experience that she went through, she became damaged. And she wanted a form of vengeance. So she became a prosecutor, she prosecuted Japanese war criminals. She not only made sure they were sentenced to death, she went to speak to them on the evening before they were hanged. And she went to watch them get hanged. So it's a very, very damaged woman. And as the years progressed I realized that the logical profession that she would be in, eventually, would be as a judge, because it's such an isolated profession. You're cut off from other people: You can't be too friendly with your neighbors, you can't be too friendly with the people around you. So there's this woman who's at the heart of this tale. I feel that it's the right character for the story.

Glanville: Jáchym, I want to ask you about how you became a writer. Your father was a writer. And obviously when you were growing up it was quite a dangerous time.

Topol: It's also complicated. My father was a writer, but after 1968 he was among these thousands and thousands of intellectuals who were sent to factories, or to jail, or they preferred to go to exile. After 1968, there is very famous movie based on a Milan Kundera story [The Unbearable Lightness of Being], how thousands and thousands of people went to exile. So my father was writer, but when I was growing up, he was worker. So I don't think there is some family tradition. And my grandpa was also writer, but during the Nazi occupation, because he was not in underground, but he was also forbidden. Sorry, it's too complicated, but these East European countries. because he was so-called Catholic writer he was during my childhood also forbidden. So I am from the family of ghost writers.

Glanville: But did you read their writing, when you were a boy? Did they give you their writing to read when you were growing up?

Topol: I saw my father as a worker. I was thinking, Writers, workers, it's the same. Must be tough. But I haven't seen my father in white shirt to have reading somewhere.

Glanville: But did he encourage you to write? Did you talk about writing?

Topol: Well, don't ask me about my father, or later, you know.

Glanville: But being a writer at that time, in Czechoslovakia, was a dangerous thing to be doing, wasn't it?

Topol: Well, Czechoslovakia is very unique, because from the year, I don't know exactly, 1982 or something like this, we had the Dictionary of Forbidden Writers. There is about, I don't know, four hundred names and faces who are forbidden. Expelled from the libraries. Even in Hungary or Poland, it was not so terrible. This is also why we had Václav Havel, I admire him today, the writer who became president. I think it's long time ago.

Glanville: But you knew it was likely that you could end up in that dictionary yourself.

Topol: Mm-hm.

Glanville: OK. But you've said that writing is your freedom.

Topol: Well, yes, this is for today, because as a writer I feel now danger to become something like factory, you know? The writers who write every year one book, then they are traveling, and so on. It's not freedom, it's another trap. There are people who like it.

Glanville: Twan, I wanted to ask you about your decision to write in English. Which as I said earlier, you're the first person to have won the Man Asia Prize as a writer in English. Sorry, second. First Malaysian writer to have won. Somebody whispered "the second" from the audience, thank you. What was your first language?

Eng: I grew up speaking English, Malay, Cantonese, a bit of Mandarin, and my parents' Chinese dialects. We went to school, it was a Malay school, we were taught in Malay and there was only one hour of English class every day. But my parents, because they were educated under the British colonial system, they studied English, they could speak English quite well. And we spoke a combination of English and the Chinese dialects at home. But for some odd reason I've always read English books, and since very young, since five or six — I started reading from five years old — and I think and I express myself and I dream in English. Again, when I'm having conversations in my dreams at night, they're all in English. I feel most comfortable writing in English.

Glanville: That's interesting. My organization, English PEN, one of the things that it does is campaign for freedom of expression but it also supports and promotes the translation of literature, and in fact we're very proud to give an award to your publisher [to Jáchym] for the publication and promotion of your book.

Topol: Translation, it's very different with e-mail. Because I'm so lucky that my books were translated also, I don't know, fifteen years ago? Do you know how e-mail . . . it's ten years old or fifteen years old, no?

Glanville: Not sure.

Topol: My first books were translated before e-mail. So, translator was sitting somewhere in the library — I don't know, in Germany or in Poland — and he was looking into the dictionaries. Then he wrote a letter with his questions. The letter need three or four days to come to me. So I had some time to read it, make answers, send it. Now, the translator is able to send twelve questions daily! So you have no time to read book or to write book. You're just answering. The biggest problem is that it's boring, you know. I am so lucky my book was translated into many languages. But —

Glanville: Eighteen, you said. Eighteen languages.

Topol: I'm not sure.

Glanville: How many questions a day?

Topol: There are some translators who have no questions and it's also very strange. So you never know. But the biggest problem is that sometimes I don't remember or I don't care about it, so I'm trying to make some joke. And the translator is in bad mood, so . . . Many details like this.

Eng: But you must be glad that at least they ask you, because I — my translators never ask me. So I have no idea what the quality of the translation is. It's very strange that they can do the entire work without once asking me, certain words, how they want to translate it. Especially the Malay words, which I use in the book.

Glanville: So the title, in fact your book's been given a different title in English. Can you tell us what the title is in Czech?

Topol: Well, in Czech the title is Chladnou zemí. It means like, "through the cold ground," and why, it's because the same day when my book was published there was in Czech Republic movie by [Adolf] Burger, Devil's Workshop [in German, Die Fälscher; in English, The Counterfeiters]. I don't know if the movie is well known in Great Britain. It's based on the memoirs of a man, Mr. Burger, who was during the war in Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz, and he was making false money for the Germans. So because I have respect for this man I change it. And the title is changed in Sweden or Poland, I don't know. And it's interesting for me because in Great Britain, Devil's Workshop, and in Czech, Devil's Workshop. I hope for the reader there is some irony. "Devil's Workshop? What is it? Is it black comedy or . . . ?" you know. In some languages it doesn't work. For example I think for Polish translation the title Devil's Workshop was too depressive.

Glanville: Is that what they thought?

Topol: They changed it. [Note: In fact they did not; it's the same — AZ]

Glanville: What did they call it?

Topol: I don't remember.

Glanville: But it's very memorable in the novel when somebody uses that, one of the characters uses that expression and they're using it to describe Belarus. So it's ironic but it's also very darkly serious, isn't it? The millions dead.

Topol: Yes, in Belarus they really tested the methods of genocide. So this is the real devil's workshop.

Glanville: Something we haven't talked about is the theme of gardening, which is one of the big themes of your book, which has so many themes. Because what the central character does is she makes herself an apprentice to the Japanese emperor's gardener and wants to build this garden in memory of her sister, who died in the Japanese camp. And you must have, from the novel, you have, clearly, very, very detailed knowledge of gardening, of a particular specialism of gardening.

Eng: Well, I have a confession to make: I hated gardening when I started writing this book. I had no interest in it. And it took a long time to convince myself that I could write this book, because I was aware that I knew absolutely nothing about any form of gardening. So even a simple description of Yun Ling walking past a particular bed of flowers, I would have to ask and check up whether the name is right and whether it could grow there at that time of the year. But as I did more research, especially into Japanese gardening, which has a lot of connections to literary and historical and philosophical, even religious connections, I became extremely fascinated by it, by these various layers. So in the end, I have to tell you — there was one scene where Yun Ling actually goes onto her knees and starts digging into the soil, and I realized that I didn't know what it felt like, so I stopped writing and ran out to a friend's garden — because I live in a flat, there's no garden — and actually went onto my knees and just fiddled around with the soil, just to get that sensation, and after I did that I ran straight back into the kitchen and quickly washed my hands off with a lot of soap. [audience laughs]

Glanville: Did you explain why you were doing that?

Eng: I told my friend I'm testing the soil for acidity!

Glanville: And are you now more interested in gardening or has it moved on?

Eng: I'm more appreciative of gardening. I can understand the value and the emotions it brings out in the person. Just this morning, before I came to this event, I took a walk up to the hills, just to walk under the trees and smell the grass, and it's something that ten years ago I would never have done.

Glanville: One thing I wanted to ask you before inviting all of you to ask some questions, one thing I really enjoyed, a joke I enjoyed in your book, which is something you've referred to, is that there's a moment one of the characters says, No one in Eastern Europe thinks they're from the East, basically. Everyone else is from the East. And I enjoyed that very much. Is that the case, that everyone thinks everyone else is from Eastern Europe?

Topol: I think — well, maybe it's too much, for example I want to stay there, you know, exactly, because it's interesting. But you know this, well, maybe in the book it's more like joke, and maybe you could find it because I forgot.

Glanville: Yeah, I don't know.

Topol: It's only Czech edition here.

Glanville: I don't think I could find it in the Czech edition. [audience laughs]

Topol: But I believe you it's inside.

Glanville: It's there, it's there. It's definitely there, and it made me laugh when I read it.

Topol: For me it's fantastic to be here because I got used to that my books were translated into the languages of neighborhood — like, you know, Hungarian, Polish, of course German. My books are in Slovakia, in Central Europe. But this book was translated into Scandinavian languages, languages of Balkan countries, English, and other exotic languages like English.

Glanville: Not Russian, and not Belarusian.

Topol: Not in Russian, for this political reason. Not Belarusian. Maybe later.

Glanville: Well, maybe samizdat. They could do samizdat.

Topol: Yes, there is still some samizdat.

Glanville: Well, I'm sure some of you will have questions to ask Jáchym Topol and Tan Twan Eng. We do have a microphone.

Topol: But if there will be some question, you should make translation, because I'm not able to —

Glanville: Well, let's see how we go.

Topol: I understand a bit your English, but —

Question 1 (woman): I have a question: The Garden of Evening Mists is obviously a very beautiful book, but also quite brutal in terms of the Japanese occupation of Malay, but when you read, with the Japanese characters, there's always something quite sympathetic. I mean, the main Japanese character, which you said you met the gardener of the emperor of Japan, he represents perhaps the best qualities of Japanese culture — you know, his gardening skill, the tea drinking and the archery, very skilled — and almost there's this sort of subplot with the two Japanese, the Japanese pilots, and the people that almost don't want to be involved in the war. Was it a conscious decision to make the book in many ways quite balanced, although obviously the Japanese regime was completely brutal. There was quite a balanced view of the Japanese, on the whole.

Eng: Yes, there was a — it's how I write. I don't want to create stock and cliché characters. It's more interesting to look at people as they are, with all the good and bad points, and . . . It's very easy to create a very unlikable cliché character, so the challenge was to make all these people, with all their quirks and pain, still sympathetic to the reader, that you feel you can empathize with them, even though you know that they're not perfect.

Question 2 (woman): The tattooing part of the book. How did that come to be? Was that the discussion with the gardener, or something else?

Glanville: Maybe you could explain what that is, Twan, for people who haven't read that?

Eng: OK. There's a subplot concerning Japanese tattooing in the novel as well. And again, like gardening, it was something I really balked against, because I don't really like tattooing. I don't like tattoos at all. So to have to write a book with tattoos in it, it was, again, quite a difficult thing to do. But that aspect did not come from my two-minute bowing and smiling with the Japanese gardener. It came from research. Basically research and just checking things out through books and materials as well.

Question 3 (woman): I read your first book, The Gift of Rain, and it's one of my favorite books, actually. And I was wondering, in your second book there seemed to be a lot less of a focus on religion and spirituality. Was that a conscious decision, or did you just feel like the subject didn't fit it very well?

Eng: Well, it's actually the second reason. I just felt there was no requirement to write about it. One good reason is that Yun Ling herself is not a very spiritual person, so to talk about all those spiritual aspects would have been false to the character.

Question 4 (woman): In the review of The Devil's Workshop, which is about like how Eastern European countries tend to commemorate the Holocaust and it's basically like a competition of doing so, people of those countries and cultures, they — I mean, those countries have had a pretty rough time over the past like gazillion years, and they're famous for their ability of learning to heal. Do you think that's one of the better parts of their culture? Do you think that's a part of their culture, or do you think that they have no other choice?

Topol: [to Glanville] Maybe you understood?

Glanville: I can't answer it, though. [audience laughs]

Topol: She knows. Ask her.

Glanville: I'd like to take ownership of your book, but I think I might have to wait a little bit before I do that.

Topol: So I'm making comment because my English is really poor. And your questions are so smart, so complicated. I must think about it.

Eng: Jáchym, just answer yes.

Topol: Gimme your e-mail, jo?

Glanville: So the question was about healing, wasn't it? About whether that's what these places do effectively, do they heal?

Topol: Hero?

Glanville: Heal. Like make you better, like heal a wound.

Topol: Hero of the book.

Glanville: No. Never mind. But in fact I mean what you're doing is satirizing that in your book. You satirize, as we talked about earlier — the bunk seekers, you know, the people with the Kafka, If Kafka weren't dead he would have been killed here. You satirize these people who come flocking in order to heal their wounds, don't you?

Topol: Well, I was trying to — Maybe I will not able to describe the whole thing, the whole situation. It is hidden. It's not easy. I'm not ready for —

Glanville: Because what you also do, I mean, as well as satirizing those people, at the same time, when you write about Belarus, where, as we've already discussed, essentially the atrocities are buried and no one can talk about them, that's equally damaging. They are damaged as well.

Topol: Well, I think it's still today. These things are a secret, even in families. And it was not very good feeling for me that friends of mine, from Belarus, who were helping me, and they are not in the book. They were not happy with the book.

Glanville: They weren't happy. Why not?

Topol: No, absolutely not. Because I remember myself, in 1988, when I was in opposition in underground, in Czechoslovak underground, and somebody came, some journalist, asking us. And when he is not writing about us, like about the great people who are fighting: Shit. So if you are in the —

Glanville: Why, why?

Topol: If you are in the so-called fight, you have no time for details.

Glanville: But why didn't you like that?

Topol: This is not book about the Belarusian opposition. This is a book about very complicated world of sin, of hatred, of forgetting, and so on. And people in the book are not good and bad. They are mixed. And if my friends are in opposition, in danger, and I am not describing their life and their fight like something clean [pure] and good, they don't understand.

Glanville: Right.

Topol: If you are in fight, you have no time for details.

Glanville: But it is very, you know, what you've written is a very powerful allegory of what is going on now.

Question 4 (woman): I'd like to ask you about what for me was a seminal moment in your text, your book.

Glanville: So who's the question for?

Woman: It's for Twan. I spent the last four days in the company of two people who lived and worked in Malaysia, in the '50s and right through to the '90s, and so it seems that they have been recounting their history of Malaysia, and you have said that your book is about many histories, and yet there's one moment, in your novel, where Aritomo says, "Between breathing in and breathing out, you live your life." Is that for you a key philosophy?

Eng: That's a very difficult question. Oh, my English is not good, so . . . [audience laughs]

Topol: No, no, no, no, no, no, no! It was the best English! I understood completely. Come on, I tell you what —

Eng: It's a philosophy I've learned to try and adopt every day in my life. Because we're all so rushing around all the time. We're not even aware we're rushing around. Especially we're so connected to the internet these days, we're going from page to page to page, and we don't even stop to digest what we've just read or understand. We're just going on to the next thing. So when I wrote that line, it struck me at that time as well. This is what I have to do, and this is what a lot of people should be aware of, is this moment. And if you think about it, it's actually very true: The living happens because the breath is drawn in, and that's when you're given life. And when you exhale, you're actually getting rid of used-up oxygen. So the living is, that moment, is so brief, but it accumulates, it becomes your entire life.

Topol: You are right.

Eng: I hope you understood that.

Question 5 (woman): I'd like to ask Tan Twan Eng a question about the Japanese gardener, because he's the person who I found most interesting. I was quite accepting and quite liking the judge. You know, I could understand what she was. I didn't feel she was particularly unusually cruel or anything, but I had difficulty with the gardener. I really liked what he was doing. I thought the gardener was terribly important philosophically and all. But I didn't quite understand him. I don't know whether it was because I don't understand Japanese culture or what. But I really liked him and yet I didn't want to like him, I suppose I could say.

Eng: Well then, I've succeeded. No, it's not because of cultural matters or reasons like that. How well can we understand each other really? You know, even though we've known friends for a long time, there are still aspects of them that we find unfathomable. So when I created Aritomo I wanted to have this real-life aspect to him as well. It's something which — I wanted readers to walk away knowing bits of him but questioning why. And I've told some people as well in the past that once you finish reading The Garden of Evening Mists, if you can take time and then read the book again, after a while, you will see things differently. You will see different things as well. It's like walking through the same garden at different seasons and different times of the year. What you see will change. According to time and also your own emotions and your awareness.

Question 6 (woman): This is for Tan as well. Could you talk a little bit about the inclusion of the South African characters in the book, 'cause I found that really interesting. And in fact particularly as an English reader, because it sort of doesn't let us off the hook too much. It stops it being a book that's just about Japanese or justice.

Eng: Well, it was the writer having some fun and trying to relieve the boredom of writing eight hours a day. Because I've lived in Cape Town for so many years, and I've seen how the South African literature has changed in the last few years, in that a lot of books these days are based on characters who have left South Africa and are now coming back. And I wanted to do the reverse, I wanted to bring this very traditional, conservative Boer veteran, World War veteran, and take him out of his comfort zone into this foreign land,
and I wanted to see how he would react. It's also my own reaction against what's happening in South African literature as well, and society. The Afrikaner has become sort of a stock cliché character, a baddie. So whenever you say he's a South African Afrikaner, you sort of have these negative implications. And my own experience is that it's not like that at all. I've met nice and bad and neutral Afrikaners. So I wanted to sort of write about them in a way that I saw them, to be fair to them.

Glanville: Time for one more question. The lady at the very back?

Question 7 (woman): I have a very short, easy question for each of the novelists. Twan, did you go to the Chelsea flower show last week? And Jáchym, have you read the novel by the French novelist HHhH, set in Prague during the war, and what did you think of it?

Topol: What do you think about [it]?

Eng: I think the Chelsea flower show is very nice but I've never been there. I've been told that it's so crowded these days that you're really standing twenty deep and you're lifting your camera high up just to snap a photograph, so . . . What I've discovered, especially walking around England and the suburbs of London, is that spring is coming and almost every house has a little plot of garden in front, and it's just wonderful walking from the bus station back to where I'm staying and just to look at all the little flowers that are coming out now, each doing their thing, and they're so happy that it's spring. I don't think I need to go to Chelsea flower show to enjoy that. Now your turn.

Topol: So this is the title of the book? Unfortunately I'm going to read it tonight. [audience laughs] It's my study plan, but — strange event, thanks a lot but maybe later.

Glanville: OK, we're going to have to end there, but I do urge you to read both of their books. Jáchym Topol's novel is just out now and I think they do have copies in the bookshop here. They're both going to be doing signings now, so I do urge you to buy their books and to read them, and thank you very much to Jáchym Topol and to Tan Twan Eng.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

"I was working 20 years on this book" — Jáchym Topol with Rosie Goldsmith about The Devil's Workshop [video]

Czech writer Jáchym Topol took the stage at the British Library last month for a chat with BBC presenter Rosie Goldsmith about his new novel, The Devil's Workshop.

The event, held as part of European Literature Night 2013, was recorded on video. Below is a transcript of the conversation.

Rosie Goldsmith: We had eight Czech entries this year. It was very, very hard to choose. But The Devil's Workshop, hot off the press this month from Portobello Books and winner of the 2013 English PEN Award for outstanding writing in translation, is unlike anything you'll ever read, ever. And it will stay with you for a very long time to come. And it's proof for me that some of the most interesting writing, and unusual writing, thought-provoking writing, today comes from the former East. It's a privilege to welcome Jáchym Topol, one of the great dissident writers before the Velvet Revolution and a leading prose writer and poet in the Czech Republic today. Jáchym.
     Sit, sit, sit. Nice to see you. Now, when I call you, don't worry, I'll go very slowly.

Jáchym Topol: You know my English is poor.

Goldsmith: I'll be very slow, I promise. OK? And if you want me to repeat something, maybe Teresa can even translate me. Let's just see how we go, OK? Jáchym, I can look into your eyes, OK? We'll try and make it work.

Topol: Yes.

Goldsmith: Now, look, when I call you a samizdat poet or a writer, do you feel proud of that? Is that all the past, all gone, finished?

Topol: When you are a samizdat poet, you know, I remember everything, so I don't think I'm changed. You know, when you write in the time of samizdat — it's the era of communism and you are part of this so-called underground, it's only situation. It's only political situation. But I'm sure that my writing is the same.

Goldsmith: So you don't write differently from underground to overground?

Topol: Absolutely.

Goldsmith: No?

Topol: Especially here in British Library, or where I am, because yesterday I was in Amsterdam. Before I was in Dublin, in the Irish Library, so I think it's overground.

Goldsmith: Well, probably here in the British Library they've got books of yours from before as well. So that's interesting for you to find out. We can ask Janet.

Topol: Because I don't write science fiction, I don't write from future. I think every writer writes from the memory. Graham Greene once told that the memory is one of the most important things for a writer.

Goldsmith: Tell us what you do write. What do you write today? You write novels, poetry, films, theater . . .

Topol: Well, the biggest thing for me is to write novel. It's, I don't know, it's challenge, it's something. It's not easy. You know, now, because I have no time, I am working and so on, I have children, my parents are old, bla bla. So I start to write short stories. [audience laughs] But it's a problem. Because you know I couldn't believe in short story. Because after Bunin, Ivan Bunin. After Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, Isaac Babel. You know, all these giants. Or Isaac Bashevis Singer. So short story it's — you should write novel, long book, and you should . . . you think about suicide. You are alone, depressed, drunk sometimes — not now. And it's part of, it's part of your life.
     Sorry. Maybe I'm too pathetic.

Goldsmith: No, it's all right. You're fantastic.

Topol: Because I have small problem to understand your English, you know? When I have reading in Hungaria or Amsterdam, it's OK. But here, I am talking too much, you know. Don't give you time for more complicated questions.

Goldsmith: You don't need questions from me. I can guarantee you.

Topol: We are serious people, you know.

Goldsmith: We can laugh. They're laughing [points to audience]. Now look [holds up book], this is a short novel. Is that easier?

Topol: Yes. My first novel, Sister — it was published in United States — it has 600 pages. And it's, I don't know, 12 years ago. So I feel like this animal. Help me: Lives in the river and eating wood: bobr.

Goldsmith: Beaver!

Topol: Yes! Exactly! So, and I am making from the whole trees, I am making only one [gestures indicating notch]. Yes. So first book, maybe five, six hundred pages. The last one — do you understand my English?

Goldsmith: Yes, absolutely. Don't worry about it.

Topol: Don't be polite. Look, I have no education, so . . . I am trying to do my best. I feel . . .

Goldsmith: Jáchym, you're being brilliant.

Topol: I feel like here in England, I feel like Jimmy Hawkins in the pirate ship.

Goldsmith: Who's Jimmy Hawkins?

Topol: I'm talking about English, British literature. Robert Louis Stevenson, the Island of Treasures. So I feel like this small boy Jimmy Hawkins.

Goldsmith: Let's talk, though, about this amazing book. This book — you've got to believe me — is an amazing book.

Topol: Do you like my book?

Goldsmith: We loved it.

Topol: It's good to be here.

Goldsmith: We really loved it. I mean, where are my judges? Didn't we just love this book? Make the man feel better about it! It's an amazing book. Let's talk about this book, OK?

Topol: It's like LSD.

Goldsmith: Let's give you some more literary LSD. I'm going to take you out of your misery, briefly, to explain what this book is about. I'll give a short description of the book, OK? Then we'll talk a little bit about it.

Topol: Please.

Goldsmith: Just to give you a breathing space here.

Topol: It's very — the book is comedy, but it's very sad.

Goldsmith: It is very sad, but it's very funny too. And who could have thought it could be so funny. It is about, it's about the concentration camps. This is a book in two locations and two parts. It's set partly in the Czech Republic, partly in Belarus. You could not imagine two grimmer locations, because the — I'm not saying the Czech Republic is grim, but Theresienstadt, Terezín, which is where half the book takes place, is, as we all know, one of the great and awful monuments, the ghetto Terezín. And then it takes place partly in Belarus, in Minsk, as well, where, as we also know, but we don't know enough about, how many thousands of people were killed there. And this book is about a young man who grows up in Terezín, Theresienstadt, and in the modern times he gathers together groups of young people, from all over the world, who come to this place to search for information about their grandparents who died in the ghetto. He sets up a commune as an alternative place of remembrance. And they have Kafka T-shirts, they produce "ghetto pizza." Things like this are where it's very funny. They have therapy sessions for all these young people. And this new project is regarded as very unwelcome by the official Theresienstadt tourist memorial people. And the camp is then marked for demolition and one of the survivors then begins this campaign to save it. And then there's a crackdown, and the authorities bulldoze it, the narrator flees to Minsk, and with the aid of two more young people, he — all he takes with him is the key to a safe deposit box and a USB stick storing the contact data of rich Holocaust survivors. And these are meant to be funders of this new project in Minsk. I mean, it's an extraordinary topic. What on earth made you choose this bold, provocative, difficult topic? For in a way a comic novel.

Topol: I was thinking that I was working about twenty years on this book.

Goldsmith: Twenty years?

Topol: Yes, and especially from the year 1989, you know, the time of East European revolutions, I spent never-ending time in Ukraine, in Poland, in Slovakia, in Byelorussia, in Romania — in East Europe, or so-called East Europe. And everywhere I had meetings with these demons, and it became obsession, sort of obsession, and you know, I think it's typical for every writer. Your theme, your topic, must become obsession. And I'm waiting for books ten years, five years, and when it's still here [points to his head] I'm trying to find time to write it down. So this book is about ghosts, or demons, of course. And when you were talking about Theresienstadt you mentioned these young people. It was the biggest shock for me. At the beginning I was thinking, Oh my god, I am still thinking about war and maybe I'm sick and so on. Then I was traveling to Theresienstadt, I was making TV reportage and so on, and I saw there, there were some people, mostly young people, these . . . these . . . freaks, you know. And I find they are the third or fourth generation of Holocaust. Then I was looking at the books, and it really exists, this sort of sickness. So it was the beginning. And I was really in Byelorussia looking for this, well, mmm . . . it's not long, you know.

Goldsmith: Well, there's a lot in it.

Topol: There are so many people here.

Goldsmith: Don't look . . . it's just you and me, just you and me. In the end, are you criticizing the, if you like, the Holocaust industry, the tourist —

Topol: Well, well —

Goldsmith: What are you finally saying about . . .

Topol: You know, I am trying to make some jokes, and I write about this "industry" with black humor. But I am not criticizing. I don't know what to think about [it]. Maybe this is the best way, you know?

Goldsmith: Do you think we should still go to visit these places? I mean, we should still go to these places.

Topol: I mean, I'm from Prague. And in Prague one of the icons, or mascot, or fetish of Prague is Franz Kafka. Franz Kafka T-shirt. And these people in Theresienstadt, they have this idea to make T-shirt with Theresienstadt, just to make another kitsch from it. And I was shocked. And oh my God, and then I was thinking, Why not? Maybe . . . you know . . . it's not easy. If you have for example ghetto pizza in Krakow, you know?

Goldsmith: It's brilliant, you know? It's black and it's bleak and it's —

Topol: The book is full of it, but I am not really criticizing. I don't know what to do with it.

Goldsmith: But it's an absolutely wonderful book, and it makes you laugh, but my God, does it make you cry as well. It really does. Now we're going to hear a reading of this book. We have somebody to read an extract for us. Sarah Sanders is going to come and read for us. It's a reading from The Devil's Workshop, and it's by Jáchym Topol. It's translated by Alex Zucker, and it's published by wonderful Portobello Books. It's been nominated by the Czech Center. Sarah.
     You going to read a little bit in Czech?

Topol: If you . . . short part. Just to show you the beautiful language of Czech people.

[Topol reads in Czech, pages 108–09 from Chladnou zemí]

[Sanders reads in English, pages 123–26 from The Devil's Workshop]

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Swastika, or Hammer and Sickle? The Story Behind the Cover of The Devil's Workshop

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! Czech author Jáchym Topol's latest novel, The Devil's Workshop, translated by Alex Zucker and published by Portobello Books, is officially released today in the UK.*

Appropriately, the book's amazing cover (designed by Bobby Evans at Telegramme Studio) was featured yesterday by the Casual Optimist (Dan Wagstaff).

Cover of The Devil's Workshop
Bobby Evans/Telegramme Studio

He picked it up from Jemima at Jackie Magpie, who had this to say about it:
High five, Portobello – a double whammy on this week’s Book by its Cover! Designed by Bobby Evans of Telegramme Studios, this cover is quite dark and masculine; miles away from the flowing, whimsical cover of The Emperor of Paris. I love the bold and busy geometric design and the way you have to work to read the title (nosy people on the Tube will probably think you’re reading ‘Evil Work Shoe’). It’s clever and eye-catching – a winner in my book!
There's a story about the design, though, that I've held off on sharing till now: I got my first look at the cover in January 2012, while I was still working on the translation. Originally, there was no hammer-and-sickle, and the square just above the walking man in the lower right-hand corner contained a swastika:

Original cover of The Devil's Workshop (c) Bobby Evans/Telegramme Studio
Original cover of The Devil's Workshop
Bobby Evans/Telegramme Studio

As I wrote Philip Gwyn Jones, the director and publisher of Portobello Books:
The cover looks great! My only concern is that, crime-wise, the novel is as much about the Soviets as it is about the Nazis, so it seems unfair that there's a swastika but no hammer-and-sickle. This is tremendously important, because we in "the West" still have a much stronger moral stand against the crimes of Nazism than the crimes of Soviet communism, and as Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands made devastatingly clear (my fantasy, actually, is to have Tim do a foreword for Jáchym's novel), in this part of Europe, for Jews and non-Jews alike, the killing came hard and heavy from both sides, sometimes in alternation and sometimes all at once. This is something people in Czechoslovakia, people probably in most of the former Soviet bloc, have known all along, but it's only just beginning to sink in for us. That's my two cents. 
In the end, the swastika had to be replaced for legal reasons, since many countries in Europe wouldn't have allowed the book to be displayed in shops if it had a swastika on the cover. In any case, the SS runes are an excellent substitute.

Now I'm just looking forward to reading reviews of what's inside the book.

* I'll be honest and say it didn't occur to me till today that the date — 6/6/13 — might be interpreted as having some connection to the novel's title or subject matter. But it doesn't; it just worked out that way.