Review: Jachym Topol’s “The Devil’s Workshop”

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In 2005 a Czech novelist writes a book, one of the rare Czech works to portray the 1968 Soviet invasion. This book tells the tale of a young orphan lad who is raised by nuns, then left to wander a militarized landscape; he’s taken in by a Soviet tank troop, but he’s haunted by Czechia, the mythical woman who embodies his homeland, and his tale reaches its climax when he finds the forest of trees carved with her image. Four years later this same author follows up with a novel, as thin and sharp as a shiv, about Eastern European countries competing for genocide tourists.

You might think you can tell what these books will feel like. The historical novel of 1968 will be heart-rending, poignant, patriotic, a kind of Ivan’s Childhood from the other side of the Soviet border. The genocide-tourism book will be acid satire, angry and merciless.

See, it’s mistakes like that that make Europeans think Americans will never understand.

In reality Jáchym Topol’s 1968 novel, Gargling with Tar (translated in 2010 by David Short), is a loping, near-affectless ramble filled with surreal touches like the wandering animals of Project Socialist Circus: the Hungarian hippo, the Polish giraffe, all these doomed weird creatures. It’s horrifying, sure, but there’s a deep cynicism. The heroic Czech martyr turns up alive and more or less well, the boy Ilya switches sides based more on whim and advantage than on conviction, and Czechia—I am not making this up—turns out to be a terrifying vampire. In the end Ilya flees the forest of awful motherland faces and heads back to the abandoned orphanage, the closest thing he can think of to a haven. Its name, because that’s the kind of undermined, wry, exiles’-humor novel this is, is the Home from Home.

Meanwhile, readers might expect that genocide-tourism book, The Devil’s Workshop (translated by Alex Zucker) to descend into pure white horror. And so it does, climaxing in a nightmare basement where genocide survivors are made willing victims in an experiment which allies the mad scientist with the mad marketing expert. But The Devil’s Workshop treats the genocide-tourists themselves with surprising compassion and respect. They may be well-off Swedish twentysomethings who are spending their summer break on safari in the graveyards of the Holocaust, but this novel takes seriously their anguished question, How can anyone live in a world where such things are possible?

Topol, the son of a well-known playwright and grandson of Czech Catholic author Karel Schulz, got his start in the samizdat movement of the 1970s and 1980s. He worked as a laborer and served prison time for his dissident activity. After the Velvet Revolution he moved from poetry into novels. His works explore the nature of home and place: There’s a terrific riff in The Devil’s Workshop about how no country wants to admit that it’s in Eastern Europe.

The nameless hero of Workshop begins life as a goatherd and subterranean explorer in Terezín, the town students of the Holocaust know better as the concentration camp Theresienstadt. “I’m one of the few who wanted to save Terezín,” our hero notes. After all, “reminiscing about the old days in Terezín” means trading stories from the camp. “This town of evil” is full of people trapped in the past, like the narrator’s mother, who barricades herself under the furniture to feel safe. And lest you think only Nazis harrowed this town, a banner on the city’s fortress wall once read, WITH THE SOVIET UNION FOR ALL TIME AND NEVER OTHERWISE. But the town was forgotten and left to decay; cats roam the ruins, “black ground water lapped everywhere.”

The narrator is part of a band of young people led by Lebo, who was born in secret on a bunk in the camp. Under Lebo’s tutelage he spends his childhood and early adolescence hunting through the town’s underground tunnels for pieces of the past to preserve, stealing his first “shy kisses and fleeting touches” in the bunkers.

The town has an official memorial, run by orderly people; we never see it. Lebo begins to create his own anarchic community, where he welcomes and guides the “bunk-seekers”: the haunted, hollow-eyed travelers, possessed by history, the ones who can’t live without coming to terms with massacres that happened decades before their birth.

Could [these horrors] happen again? What is man capable of? How come it happened to them, but I was spared? What would I have done if it was me being led to my death? Can it happen again? The seekers turned these morbid questions over and over again in their minds, a demon had taken hold of them, clouding their brains.… They showed up here crazed with pain, seized by the eternal question every seeker asked: If it happened here, can it happen again? They knew they weren’t in a medieval castle but in an abyss where the world had been torn apart, a place without mercy or compassion, where anything was possible. And it ate at their brains.

There’s a festival atmosphere to Lebo’s memorial tours. There are tents on the town square where women from the community sell “ghetto pizza.” The bunk-seekers and their native guides dance under the stars, drink wine and smoke the red grass of Terezín. The central liturgical event is the “evening sittings”:

Lebo would sit on the bunk where his mother had given birth illegally and he had acquired his name and talk about the long-ago horrors of the town of evil, the death of thousands within the walls where we now breathe, and all those who walked out of these walls to the trains that carried them to their death. Then he would pass around the objects, so we all had a chance to touch them, bringing his tale of the past so vividly to life that images of what had happened flashed before our eyes. Some would cry out, yes, many shed tears, but Lebo had a way out for even the most hopeless: It happened and it’s impossible to grasp, but despite all the horror you can live on. Look at me! I was born here and I’m still alive!

And our goatherd tells us that it works. He may describe the bunk-seekers somewhat caustically (“stoned on rampart grass, they trembled in their bunks, inserting their minds into Lebo’s like fingers into a wound”). But Lebo offers the bunk-seekers living proof that you can confront the reality of genocide and keep going. There is no real explanation, no ideology or religion or advice, no 12-Step program or philosophical conclusion. There is simply this encounter with a living person.

But if something works, it can be sold. One of the healed bunk-seekers comes up with the idea to sell t-shirts: Franz Kafka’s picture, with a gallows, the word THERESIENSTADT, and the slogan, If Kafka hadn’t died, they would have killed him here. The t-shirts are a hit. There are plans to make Lebo’s “Comenium” (“after John Amos Comenius, the Czech educator known as the ‘teacher of nations,’ who said that school should be play”) better-known and better-funded. To put Terezín on the map! As these efforts begin to succeed, people who live atop other genocide sites start to ask how they can get a piece of the action. If we plant German insignia in these mass graves, maybe the German government will give us money to build a museum….

So the goatherd finds himself complicit in yet another destruction of his hometown, and he flees into what’s undeniably Eastern Europe, grim and repressed and willing to do things these soft Czechs can’t bring themselves to do. Willing to do what it takes to build “a Jurassic Park of horror” and win the world’s attention. (After all, you can’t get into the European Union if you have “pits of corpses lying around” all willy-nilly!) And so they go down into the nightmare basement.

The Devil’s Workshop is a powerful read, with unforgettable horror imagery. It’s a defense of the existential question. We live in a moralizing age, an age impatient with questions that don’t seem to lead to any immediate action: questions that don’t help. Ivan Karamazov may wonder how one can live in a world of cruelty and the suffering of children; the rest of us wish he’d get a haircut and a job. “How can you live? Well, have you tried not dying? I hear that works!” Go to a protest, get a sponsor, have you tried cognitive behavioral therapy, maybe you should check out the Unitarians. If you hate suffering so much, why don’t you spend your time relieving it instead of wandering around asking questions about it? “Practice random acts of kindness,” make sandwiches for homeless people, but there is really no point in spending Mamma and Pappa’s money wandering around the nowheresvilles of the Eastern Bloc hunting for meaning.

The Devil’s Workshop, by contrast, takes this search for hope and meaning seriously. In good existentialist fashion it answers not with a principle, not even with a koan, but with a person. The novel’s climactic horrors come from the replacement of a living person with that person’s narrative: One is no longer a survivor of human evil but a glass case preserving its effects. In contrast to these intensely imagined violations of human dignity, the descriptions of the bunk-seekers’ encounters with Lebo and his community are only briefly sketched. I’m willing to say that’s the point: We ourselves haven’t encountered him, we’ve only encountered the simplified version of the narrative, the mass of words in the shape of a man. Christians hammer on this image of the encounter with the living God, the encounter and personal relationship with Jesus the living Man, not Jesus the historical figure: Jesus the Crucified, irreducible to “Christianity.” That encounter, we hope, does transform our life afterward. It’s not clear whether the encounters with Lebo and the Comenium transform lives or simply restore bunk-seekers to their ordinary lives and plans. Certainly our hero is not transformed. He is a taciturn observer, not a schemer; like Ilya he is the kind of guy who goes along for the ride and gets in way over his head. (Both of these novels feature people being led by ropes around their necks.)

There’s one kind of debate about historical memory, the debate about whom you should honor. Think of the Hungarian crowd in ‘56 tearing down the looming statue in Heroes’ Square, dedicated to “the great Stalin, from the grateful Hungarian people.” Or Confederate statues coming down, officially or freelance, this summer. But even when everyone agrees on whom to honor, memory can still be weaponized. There’s a reason Topol’s hero at first mistakes the uniform of the Belarusian Ministry of Tourism for an army uniform. In between “the TV Palace on Communist Street” and “the Palace of Ground Forces,” a museum is being built to commemorate a real massacre: Topol uses the real survivors’ real narratives in his text. But the way these narratives are used dehumanizes the survivors. The man who tells our hero, “Until the dead find peace, the living will live in shame,” runs the devil’s workshop of the title: a terrible basement in Belarus, where survivors become lucrative memory-mummies.

This phantasmagoric novel explores so many elements of the project of remembrance, with grim irony and steely compassion. There are gaps: Topol deals only glancingly with learning that your family and people were on the killers’ side of genocide, for example. But Topol makes you feel how everywhere you press on the earth, blood wells up out of the ground—there are so many more mass graves than anyone realizes. “Everyone knows about the mass grave in Kurapaty,” one character says casually, and both I and the narrator realize we’ve never heard of the place. It can seem that if you let the dead speak, their wailing will drown out the living. Memory can become thanatos, as with the man who wants to stay forever in the nightmare basement because it’s “the closest you can get… to horror.” And yet Topol still seeks a way to balance life and memory, truth and peace.

In the author’s note at the end of The Devil’s Workshop, Topol apologizes “for my failure to write about demons realistically.” But who could? We have an idea of what ordinary human experience is: the shield of Achilles, the life of peace. But there is another ordinary human experience as well, the experience of slaughter and its consequences. The coverups, the commodification. Perhaps this ordinary human experience can’t be rendered in conventional storytelling. There’s a point when your experience of the world steps outside of what we consider to be literary realism, and enters nightmare.

[This article appears in Fare Forward Issue 8 (Dec. 2017), order here.]

Eve Tushnet

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, and Amends: A Novel. Eve blogs at Patheos (find her at patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet), and her hobbies are sin, confession, and ecstasy.