Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Devil & World War 2: Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop

There are lots of reasons I ordered up a copy of Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop as soon as I heard about it: the book addresses historical memory and World War 2, I seem to have an affinity for Czech absurdism and humor, I’ve visited all the novel’s main settings (Terezín, Prague, Minsk, and Khatyn), and I was eager to read more of Alex Zucker’s work after enjoying his translation of Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed. Alex translated The Devil’s Workshop from the Czech book known as Chladnou zemí.

The Devil’s Workshop is a sneakily powerful novel narrated by an unnamed man who came into the world because his father rescued his mother at the liberation of the concentration camp in Terezín, also known as Theresienstadt. As an adult, the narrator works with Lebo, a man who’s everyone’s uncle: Lebo was born in the camp during the war and makes it his mission to preserve everything related to the camp, save the town, and make it a bigger attraction. Lebo and the narrator eventually gather plenty of money and plenty of people in Terezín… but then things fall apart when they become victims of their own success and are accused (among other things) of having a commune. With orgies.

Before too long, the narrator (carrying a thumb drive loaded with contact information for donors) is escaping the Czech Republic, lured to Belarus by Alex and Maruška, who are building their own war-related museum:

The museum we’re building in Khatyn, Alex says. It’s going to be the most famous memorial site in the world. The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them. That’s why you’re here!

About twenty pages later, Alex bemoans the existing “boring, old-style memorial” at Khatyn:

That won’t get the attention of the new Europeans. Look at the Poles and that Katyn of theirs! A step ahead, again! They’re shooting a movie about it! And what about our Khatyn? Nobody’s even heard of it.
Khatyn, Belarus
Alex’s plans for Khatyn include oral history and authenticity in a combination I can only describe as ghoulish. I shuddered (physically!) when I realized the plan for the museum… it’s a logical conclusion for the novel but it’s also a logical extension of real-life issues that generate lots of debate these days, things like the transformation of museums into interactive experiences, monetization of human suffering, and spectacles like Bodies… The Exhibition.

I seem to read a fair bit about historical memory and World War 2—the far more optimistic Here Comes Mrs. Kugelman is another World War 2-related book that comes to mind after a recent reading—but the combination of dark humor, tragedy, imagination, and twists on the realities of Belarus give The Devil’s Workshop a particular relevance that makes me more than willing to forgive the novel’s slightly uneven pacing and characterization. Finally, I’m happy to report that Alex Zucker feels fully in control of his material with this book, too: I barely noticed that the book lacks quotation marks (this is a feat), and he does a beautiful job making choppy and colloquial language wonderfully readable. That’s very difficult, particularly in a book like this, with its humor, remnants of war-time suffering, and strong voices, but he sure makes it look easy.

Disclaimers: I know Alex Zucker through the American Literary Translators Association. I bought the book.

Up Next: Rose Macaulay’s quirky The Towers of Trebizond, MacDonald Harris’s comically metaphysical The Carp Castle, and Niccolo Ammaniti’s gritty As God Commands.

Image: Part of the memorial at Khatyn, photo by Veenix, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

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