Jean Echenoz’s Running is a fictional investigation of the life and athletic genius of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner who is widely regarded as one of the great runners of the 20th Century.

The novel opens in World War II, with the German invasion of Moravia. Emil, a teenager at the time, is working at the Bata shoe factory, his hoped-for future as a schoolteacher having fallen by the wayside. To promote themselves, the factory organizes sports teams and athletic events, and despite his loathing of all athletic activity, Emil is compelled to represent the factory in a cross-country race against several members of the Wehrmacht. To his surprise, Emil finishes second in the race and is invited to join a running club, which he resists at first:

Against all odds, he soon starts enjoying himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him, and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.

Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1,500 and 3,000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.

Emil’s running style and training methods are self-taught and unorthodox—Echenoz makes a few attempts to describe Zátopek’s strained and painful-looking style—but these methods prove effective for Emil. He begins winning races around occupied Czechoslovakia and comes in fifth at the European Championships in Oslo, breaking the Czech record. After the end of World War II, Emil is drafted into the army, whom he represents at the Allied Forces Championships in Berlin. During the race he laps several of the competitors and the crowd goes wild—Emil suddenly finds himself world famous.

His fame makes him the perfect propaganda tool for the fledgling communist country, so Emil is made an “Athlete of the State”. He marries a fellow athlete, and he wins gold in the 10,000 meters in the 1948 Olympics in London—the first such medal for Czechoslovakia. This is the beginning of Emil’s dominance of distance running. He wins everywhere he goes and sets a world records almost every time out. He is the fastest man on earth. His career reaches a peak at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, where he wins gold in the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 meters, and, incredibly, in the marathon—a race he had never run before in his life.

Inevitably, age catches up with Emil, and he begins losing races, until he finally retires following the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

In Running, Echenoz has chosen a compelling figure to focus on. Zátopek’s story—a reluctant athlete who, through serendipity and will, becomes a legend and a hero to his country—is truly fascinating. Echenoz’s style here is perfectly suited to the action, the races in particular are well described, and Linda Coverdale’s translation is transparent.

The novel, however, can at times feel like a simple recapitulation of Emil’s victories. There isn’t really any psychological depth to the ‘character’ of Emil nor much tension in the telling of his story. This seems intentional for the most part; Echenoz appears to be more interested in the accomplishments, which are astounding, than in the man, and much of the political background of the novel serves more as context, or simple fact, than as motivation for anything that takes place. I’d categorize it as creative non-fiction rather than as a novel. At a really brief 128 pages, Running is a fascinating story that rescues, for me at least, an important and highly influential athlete from obscurity.


Comments are disabled for this article.

....

Running
By Jean Echenoz
Translated by Linda Coverdale
Reviewed by E.J. Van Lanen
128 pages, Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59558-473-1
$19.95
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 >