The Devil’s Workshop – Jachym Topol (translated by Alex Zucker) – Best Translated Book Award 2014

As we know, the world of translated book prizes contains a hefty amount of World War Two fiction, therefore it is no surprise to see this work feature on the longlist for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. Is it worthy of making the list for the writing, not the subject matter alone?

Welcome to a bleak place, yes a very bleak place. “Terezin, an eighteenth-century fortress town north of Prague that the Gestapo used as a prison and ghetto for Jews in the Second World War.” Our nameless protagonist was brought up in Terezin, his “father” a major in the army, his mother rescued from the mass graves – “my mum never went outside, she needed a room’s edges and corners behind her back, just a tiny space to breathe in was enough.” Just like our small novel, a tiny place where you can hardly breathe, but it’s just enough. We follow our nameless anti-hero as he herds goats, retrieves mementos from the catacombs, is shipped off to prison, and as a loner becomes the escort for the prisoners on death row as they walk to their execution.
The prison directors were amazed that when I walked with the prisoners, they didn’t whimper, didn’t scream wordlessly like animals, didn’t struggle. They were calm and quiet, I suppose because I was calm. My head, my mind, my legs were used to the twists and turns of Terezin’s tunnels, the gloom and concrete of the cells and bunkers, the iron of the bars, so nothing in my body or mind rebelled against the rooms of death, and I didn’t vomit, or pray under my breath, or have nightmares, or break down in tears afterwards, which, I was told, often happened to the jailers who were paid to escort the condemned to their end.
Upon release he returns to Terezin, he needs a place to live, tees up with Lebo, who was born in the concentration camp, all to save the town. And how? Turn it into a living museum, tell the stories of the atrocities to the young eager children that arrive with mum and dad’s credit cards.
She was one of the seekers of the bunks, young people with brains darkened by the cloud of the terrible past, by the horrors that had befallen their parents, grandparents, relatives, or just by the fact that those horrors had happened at all. Could they happen again? What is man capable of? How come it happened to them, but I was spared? What would I have done if it had been me being led to my death? Can it happen again? The seekers turned those morbid questions over and over again in their minds, a demon had taken hold of them, clouding their brains.
This story of Terezin is a dark dark tale, of the atrocities of war, and now the State sanctioned “tourist” approach that flies in the face of the communities that still survive there and have a different story to tell. The first half of our novel delves into the story of Terezin (which is not fictitious) and questions the “tourism”, using Franz Kafka tee shirts overprinted with “If Franz Kafka hadn’t died, they would have killed him here” to make a quick buck. Our protagonist then “escapes” and makes his way to Minsk, Belarus, to assist others with setting up their own “tourism” industry for concentration camps.
You know how many people the Nazis killed in Czechoslovakia?
No, not off the top of my head, but we can easily Google it.
Three hundred sixty-two thousand, four hundred and fifty-eight! And you know how many here is Belarus?
About the same?
She clenches her fist. Shakes her head. Rolls her eyes. She is seriously angry. She actually stamps her feet! She looks like and angry teacher, picking on a kid in class.
I give her the bloody handkerchief back. She shoves it in her pocket. My nose isn’t bleeding anymore. But it’s all stuck together inside.
They killed four million people here. It’s in the Guinness Book of Records! And you know how many people there were in Czechoslovakia and how many in Belarus?
No.
The same. Ten million. But you in the West, you don’t have a clue! Terezin was nothing!
What is she getting so angry about? I guess the dezhurnaya got her upset.
The world never saw camps like we had here is Belarus! Maruska yells.
Maruska!
They say all the death camps were in Poland. That’s bullshit! All the tour operators only go to Auschwitz! But that’s going to change.
Our novel questions that age old problem, when do we consign history to the past? Of course a controversial way to look at things by asking our protagonist to be the instigator, assistor of bigger and better concentration camps memorials, all seeking the external funding and tourist dollar. A concentration camp circus?
Brother – Arthur leans towards me, breathing in my face – you know how many tourists a year come to Belarus?
Three thousand five hundred and something, Maruska answers for me. I have no idea.
It’s high time that changed, Arthur says. Guess who had the most casualties during the war? We did! Guess who had the most people murdered under communism? We did. And guess who still has people disappearing, eh? We do! That’s the division of labour in the globalized world of today, dammit! Thailand: sex. Italy: paintings and seaside. Holland: clogs and cheese. Right? And Belarus? Horror trip, right?
Besides an uncomfortable creep throughout, one that niggles at the reader as some of the harebrained ideas for museums surface, or the commercialism of the horrors becomes a reality, this novel does have a couple of patchy moments. There are a few sections that just appear from nowhere with no adequate explanation and there are quite a few sentences that I reread over and over to understand, sometimes just forgetting them as I moved on – the work of a weak translation or the subtleties of the cryptic tale.

Short sharp sentences, no dwelling on subtleties and conversations that are not marked with “” at times was distracting. However this acerbic style adds to the uncomfortable feel overall. A worthy inclusion on the longlist.

Definitely not a book for those who like it light, but if you’re into World War Two fiction this could be up your alley as it does approach a taboo subject in a very bleak manner.

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