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]

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