Many in the West will remember vividly key events in the fall of Communist Eastern Europe. Events such as The 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’ in Czechoslovakia and the fall of the Berlin Wall, were celebrated as the world witnessed the liberation of millions from the iron grip of authoritarianism. Few in the West however, can understand the experience of generations who lived through such enormous social upheaval. Fewer still are positioned so uniquely to articulate this experience as Jachym Topol, Czech author and poet, attending this English Pen event to discuss his new book Gargling with Tar, with acclaimed BBC journalist Misha Glenny.
Described to me by a fan before the event as ‘a cult writer, a chronicler of Czechoslovakia’s generation X’, Topol has been a preeminent figure in the cultural life of Czechoslovakia since the early 1980s. Son of Czech playwright and Shakespeare translator Josef Topol, he first gained notoriety on the underground scene in his 20s for poetry, also writing lyrics for the rock band Psi Vojaci, led by his younger brother. He went on in 1982 to cofound the samizdat magazine Violit, and in 1985 Revolver Revue, a samizdat review that specialized in modern Czech writing.
Imprisoned and interrogated often by Soviet authorities during the 1980s for his samizdat publishing activities, Topol has since the 1989 ‘Velvet Revolution’ found no shortage of publishers or readers for his work. His writing has previously articulated the sense of dislocation felt by many after the fall of Communism. In Gargling with Tar however, Topol takes us back to 1968, and through the eyes of a young boy tells the story of the Warsaw Pact invasion after the short-lived cultural liberalization of his country.
After a short introduction, in which Glenny, a former BBC Yugoslav correspondent, described Topol as an author that ‘summed up the feeling in 1990s Eastern Europe’, the discussion began with the turbulent period of Czech history that was the revolution of 68′ and its aftermath. Topol was keen to convey the dangers of the west ‘romanticizing’ the events of 68′, saying that for him it was ‘a nightmare’. He described with passion how he and his family were part of a wave of emigration to the countryside after the invasion. He also recounted his ‘brainwashing’ under the Soviet regime, one which he described as full of ‘Utopian ideals for the future’. For Topol it seems, a major chapter of Czech history has not been acknowledged by the West and indeed by Czechs themselves, as Topol described the events during 68′ as ‘taboo’ in Czech society. Many literary critics have pointed out that there is a glaring lack of Czech literature that covers the story of the 68′ invasion directly.
Topol and Glenny went on to discuss life after 68′, focusing on the 1980s when he and many other young Czech’s had become politically active, using literature and music to question the communist regime. Again, Topol was keen to point out that the underground cultural movements of this era had been romanticized in the eyes of the West. He described how police interrogation, beatings and incarceration became part of everyday life for him. Despite this ‘golden era’ of cultural development and rebellion, Topol stressed, an entire generation were still having their freedoms taken away.
The discussion then turned to the second half of Gargling with Tar, in which the protagonist Ilya becomes a guide for the invading Soviet forces. Glenny pointed out that he saw the second half of the book, with its references to circus acts from various Warsaw pact countries, as being a metaphor for a madhouse. The book describes how the Warsaw Pact forces brought the circus acts with them as ‘cultural consolation’ for the invasion. Topol explained how he was fascinated by the circus and its stong tradition in Eastern European history. The circus had a very glamorous image at the time he said. ‘In a totalitarian regime’, he continued, ‘the life of a circus performer was seen as glamorous and free, something that people could aspire to’.
Finally, Glenny asked Topol about his work moving forward, whether he had a new novel that he was working on. Topol was unforthcoming at this point, stating that the writers pace was slow. He had at this time, he stated, no novel in the works. However he was also keen to convey that he wanted his writing to still be his escape to freedom, not publishing because he feels the pressure to.
An unlikely literary hero. Topol was evidently keen not only to de-mytsify the history of his country, but to de-romanticize the job of an author itself. His body of work seeks to shed light to the darker side of the Czech revolutions, giving a voice to the voiceless, and articulating the feelings of a people who experienced their country changing almost overnight. His novels undoubtedly have the power to enhance the Western World’s understanding of Czechoslovakia. We can only hope that he will continue to illuminate our understanding of such a fascinating period in 20th century history.
Report by David Charles
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/garglingwithtar-jachymtopol/