Jáchym Topol, and Norman Manea, who lived during the Communist . www. Readings with Laurent Binet, Erri De Luca, György Dragomán, Jáchym Topol, Daniela .org/article/from-i-cant-stand-still-an-interview-with-jchym-topol. The Devil’s Workshop (paperback). The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about.
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Eastern European literatureKafka. Dates in parentheses refer to publication of the Czech original unless otherwise stated.
You began doing journalism during the revolutionary era, inso for years you were both a journalist and an author. I think I even translated a poem from your second book of poetry, Tuesday There Will Be Warthat was set in Burma, where you had gone to report jcyhm the heroin trade. Do you think journalism has helped you as a novelist?
I have a love-hate relationship with newspapers, or working as a journalist. This is something that goes back to the past, all the way to samizdat. To me writing poems seemed just as difficult and important as, say, splitting the atom. In that sense we were backwards compared to the West, where the people working in newspapers were journalists, professionals, whereas in this country they were mostly ideological clowns, if not outright hatemongers calling for repressive measures.
In that respect the big models for me and my circle were two writers: That was the atmosphere I grew up in. You could dream of living holed up out in the country somewhere writing poems, but as long as you lived under that hated regime, the rule was poetics is politics.
Every free breath you took reeked of the slammer. I mention my friends who stayed in newspapers intentionally, since unlike them I have another life.
I mean, I still have to write for newspapers and magazines all the time, to earn enough so I can take time off to write a book. I was even a professional madman, after they let me out of the nuthouse, with papers to;ol prove it. So, after doing all that, journalism seemed like the most adventurous profession, and it was great being at Respekt.
I wrote reportage, but some of it I also managed to put down in poetry, as you mentioned. Another interesting kchym is that I wrote almost all those poems in another country—hardly ever in a hotel, usually in some hostel or dormitory. A journalist writing a story about them for a newspaper!
I would pretend I was writing postcards, since you were automatically suspicious to the working class if you were writing in a pub. You were either a nutcase or a spook, or more likely both. Just the other day I stopped by one of the places I used to write: It looks the same as it did in the seventies. But back to newspapers! The stories I wrote for the national news section at Respekt were what I call, to borrow from Boris Vian, the froth of the day—murder, corruption, the porn industry.
But I also got to write about the return of wolf packs in Slovakia, and a reportage on hiking the Greenland coast. And I paid attention to how they talked, and lived through more experiences than I can count.
So I just kept sticking my nose into life, and only had time for a minimum of the solitude that I dream of. Every time I did a residency, the moment I got out I went straight back into life, and working in newspapers I really had no choice.
All that traveling around gets crazy, and it was also sometimes a bit risky, what with my kids being little and my parents getting old. The reporting I remember—the people I met, the places, the colors—but those two years in culture are kind of a blur. Parked in a chair in an office, constant editorial meetings. My work in newspapers has also helped me in one very important way, which is cutting my own texts—not viewing my writing as something sacred, forged in the fire of inspiration, but as material I can cut with a sword, scissors, even dynamite.
Whenever I hear the words deadlinehedleadeditorial meeting, it almost sends a chill down my spine. Now I have the urge again to do nothing except write books. If the books are supposed to come out, they will. What exactly is your job there? Just now I was thinking how that feeling of needing to be of service that drove my journalistic work in the underground and the first few years after the revolution had all drained out of me.
But my work for the Havel Library is definitely a service. How did I get here? We have somewhere between fifteen and nineteen events a month: And now here I am doing the exact same thing! Most of the authors I invite to our library are from countries with an authoritarian regime: That was him, cracking jokes right up to the very last breath. Your first novel, City Sister Silverhad, in my opinion, one of the most powerful texts ever written about Auschwitz, and yet almost nobody in this country even commented on it.
Can you explain what you meant by that? Two days ago a book came out called Open Wounds. So when I look ahead and see your next question, Why genocide? Why the black humor? Why does that theme still resonate? First is my family history, to put it simply. My father wrote plays. That was the great atmosphere of the sixties, after the end of Stalinism, when people began to relax and get together and talk about things.
Those were the best times when I was a kid. And of course my bed was next to the bookshelf, and one time I reached up there and the book I happened to grab was The Society for the Protection of Animalsby J. He took me to the ramp too, where the trains took his friends away to the gas.
I kept wondering, Am I allowed to write about those things? I remember I told you how after I finished writing City Sister SilverI was afraid of Sergej Machonin for the same reason, a harsh literary critic who was in Sachsenhausen during the war.
He was the first one I let read the Auschwitz chapter in City Sister Silver and I was so agitated about it, thinking what have I done, that I was ready to take it out, scratch it, bury the whole thing. But he gave me the thumbs-up, made a couple suggestions, so I was able to publish my first book just the way I wrote it.
Another survivor whose opinion was important to me was Dita Kraus, who jxhym in Auschwitz with her husband, Oto B. I am the one and only chronicler of the Holocaust!
Who do you think you are, you cynical little brat?
He was ready to break my face. I think he kind of dozed off during the reading, but afterwards he said it was all right. So I want to make it clear that Jchtm may write my own way, jhcym way that I want to, but the opinions of the people who were there are absolutely crucial to me. I killed off my own black nightmares, my paranoia and obsessions and terrors, but the ones who lived through it said: As Dita Kraus said: What is it, you think, that draws you to this theme?
My interest in what you call genocide—I would put it differently: We were fascinated by people like Rudolf Vrba, who escaped from Auschwitz and talked about it on Voice of America, or Richard Glazar, who wrote about the uprising in Treblinka extermination camp Trap with a Green Fence.
The Czech lands were jchm the mass murders that took place in Ukraine and Belarus. Why had they left them behind? The atmosphere of mystery, the questions left unanswered. I put it all together later on. So the first reason is my boyhood adventures. Then, later on, when I was about jchjm, my friends and I went on one of our countless trips hitchhiking around Poland, and one morning we woke up in these big jdhym tubes, like the ones they use for sewer pipe.
And some guy in a striped uniform drove us out of our hiding place and walked us through the gate, through the barbed wire, inside, and we realized he was a former prisoner who worked there as a guide now. He led us around and showed us, four Czech long-haired teenagers, the whole time telling us these terrifying horror stories: Jhcym were the barracks, the execution site, the gas chamber, and so on. Nobody used terms like Holocaust or Shoah in Czechoslovakia back then, the extermination of the Jews was kept silent.
None of us knew what Auschwitz was. So my interest in what happened was the interest of a total savage who finds something out for topl first time, something awful and terrifying, and feels threatened by the enormous lie.
Because the same way I found out about the Holocaust, eventually I found out about the Gulag, too. I bought the samizdat edition of Solzhenitzyn, The Gulag Archipelagothe first day I got out of my three-month stay on the psychiatric ward, where I went to avoid having to serve in the army. In my everyday normal life growing up, Topo was constantly on the lookout for signs that another Armageddon like that was on the way. I wanted to be prepared. Of course these were the feelings of a nervous wreck, an ropol endangered animal.
Fortunately history—on my territory at least, in central Europe—went in a different direction. To;ol did Belarus end up in there? Why this particular combination of horrors? The plan was never fully carried out, but still it toool in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Eastern Europe and Russia by starvation and disease—maybe millions, nobody knows the exact numbers—and the deportation and expulsion of hundreds of thousands more, with thousands of villages burned to the ground.
Because if you voice any doubts about the Great Patriotic War in Russia, you can be persecuted for it—you might even lose your neck. Because Slavs took part in the mass murders.
Usually the Germans were the planners and officers, but the executioners were Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, Russians. There were even two divisions from Slovakia deployed under the Wehrmacht in Ukraine. Some of the land there, in Belarus, is still ruined. Meanwhile the murderers, some of whom were working for the KGB, received honors and big pensions, some of them are still getting them.