11 April 14 | Monica Carter

Michael Stein is a writer and journalist in the Czech Republic and runs a blog on Central European writing called literalab. He is an editor at B O D Y.

Reading The Devil’s Workshop you come up against a remarkable and frightening historical reality: that the memory of the mass killings of World War II is most flawed, faded and even purposefully obscured precisely in those places where it was the most severe. At one point a western visitor to the commune that pops up around the site of the former concentration camp of Terezín makes a recriminatory speech to the Czechs how Western Europe has carefully tended cemeteries for its war dead, whereas here everyday life takes place on the very spots where people were killed or sent on to Auschwitz and no one seems to care. Of course, you could read about this imbalance in a history book or article, but the way Jáchym Topol is able to dramatize this amnesia and ignorance has the kind of effect no dispassionate recounting of figures could ever hope to achieve.

The novel is split into two parts, both attempts to memorialize the genocide that took place during the war. The first part revolves around an international commune of a decidedly bohemian bent in Terezín that publicizes the plight of the crumbling former camp site in the face of government disinterest that becomes outright hostility. The second part sees the narrator enlisted in a similar, though far more perilous cause, to help create a very different kind of museum of genocide in Khatyn, Belarus, a place where victims of Nazism far exceeded those in his native wartime Czechoslovakia.

Any novel that delves into humanity’s darkest horrors brings with it a certain set of assumptions – moral certainly, but also aesthetic, literary, stylistic. Here you have a book that deals with genocide and totalitarianism, so you can imagine a number of stylistic approaches: stark, steely prose to reflect a cold and painful reality; or pages without paragraph breaks, breathless, an unyielding barrage of images; or labyrinthine sentences to combat the inadequacy of memory so evidently on display here. But Topol has thrown all these assumptions out the window and written a book which is both entertaining and extremely beautiful. In fact, it would be the most unlikely (and undesirable) request at a bookstore counter ever made, but if someone were to ask for a fun book about genocide The Devil’s Workshop would be my pick. At no point though does the book’s fast pace and humor lessen the horror and impact of what its depicting. Both the pace and the humor are in a large part the result of Alex Zucker’s outstanding translation, which navigates between Topol’s colloquial style and the weighty issues the book is touching on.

Then there is the question of current relevance. You would think a book orbiting around crumbling, neglected and even non-existent memorials to World War II genocide wouldn’t necessarily be reflected in our front page news. But it’s almost as if events in the Ukraine, Russia and Crimea have brought scenes and themes from Topol’s novel directly onto our TV screens. The election poster for the Crimean Referendum showing a swastika superimposed on one Crimea and a Russian flag superimposed on another looks like it could have been pulled off the novel’s book cover. More importantly, the way the terms Nazi and fascist are being cynically thrown around in the current conflict show the degree to which this dark era of history remains misunderstood where it was most deadly and that Eastern European complicity in genocide is very far from being acknowledged.

But what brings The Devil’s Workshop above and beyond the issues it represents and the history it covers, and why it should win The Best Translated Book Award, is its sheer artistic force. It is never just a political or historical novel. Both memorial sites, for example, have networks of tunnels underneath them, are peopled with earnest, often troubled youth and are connected to people with tragic and shadowy pasts. But as evocative and developed as the symbolism gets it never gets reductive. There is never just one way to read this labyrinthine story.

To describe the bizarre imagery Topol evokes in the novel’s most powerful and disturbing scenes the word surreal seems inadequate, even quaint, though it may well be the first word to come to mind. This isn’t Paris but the killing fields of Belarus, and if the surreal is often conjured up by referring to “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella” then what The Devil’s Workshop produces is the result of a meeting of two ruthless ideologies in a place far bloodier than a dissecting table, and of course of a master writer converting it into art.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély
Reviewed by Jason Newport

To be, or not to be?

Hamlet’s enduring question is one that Szilárd Borbély, acclaimed Hungarian poet, verse-playwright, librettist, essayist, literary critic, short-story writer, and, finally, novelist, answered sadly in the negative, through his suicide in 2014, at the. . .

Read More >

A Greater Music
A Greater Music by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .

Read More >

Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata"
Two Lost Souls: on "Revulsion" and "Cabo De Gata" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; Eugen Ruge
Reviewed by Tim Lebeau

The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .

Read More >

Melancholy
Melancholy by László Földényi
Reviewed by Jason Newport

In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .

Read More >

The Hatred of Music
The Hatred of Music by Pascal Quignard
Reviewed by Jeanne Bonner

Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .

Read More >

Fragile Travelers
Fragile Travelers by Jovanka Živanović
Reviewed by Damian Kelleher

In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .

Read More >

Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei
Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger
Reviewed by Russell Guilbault

Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .

Read More >

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages
Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages by Kyn Taniya
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .

Read More >

The Subsidiary
The Subsidiary by Matías Celedón
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .

Read More >

Thus Bad Begins
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías
Reviewed by Kristel Thornell

Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .

Read More >