The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol trans. By Alex Zucker – Why This Book Should Win
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.