When we talk about revolution, we tend to talk about youth. In 1968, no band seemed to encapsulate youthful rebellion more than the Beatles, and today, no song seems to encapsulate 1968 more than “Revolution.” In the song, John Lennon stands as a man apart, following the famous distorted guitar riff with a “J’accuse . . . !” in B-major: “You say you want a revolution / Well, you know / We all want to change the world.” Though he does not hesitate to refer to us, his listeners, as “brother,” we learn that violence, naïve idealism, and uncritical support of “people with minds that hate” are not cool. If Lennon is our brother, he is our big brother, a fact we are reminded of in his last piece of advice: “But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.” That’s right: ideology won’t get you laid, little brother.
For better or worse, the energy and desire for political change—radical political change—is more often than not left in the hands of those without the wisdom, experience, and understanding to effect it: the young. This Catch-22 of revolutionary fervor is a phenomenon that Czech writer Jáchym Topol understands well. One of the most prominent journalistic voices of 1989’s Velvet Revolution, Topol made a name for himself in the late 1970s and early 1980s both as lyricist for the avant-rock band Psí vojací, led by Topol’s younger brother Filip, and as a key figure in the underground press, writing for and distributing a number of samizdat publications. Born into a family of dissident writers, Topol is now a widely respected novelist, heir to a literary culture whose giants—Václav Havel, Milan Kundera––are as well known for their political activity as for their creative output. Unsurprising for a novelist brought up within the Eastern Bloc, Topol’s novels are primarily concerned with history, and in Nightwork—his fourth novel, first published in 2001 but just recently made available in English––he turns not to the revolution of 1989, as he did in his first novel, City Sister Silver (1994), but an earlier period of political strife: the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, commonly referred to as Prague Spring.
On the surface, Nightwork has much in common with the novel that follows it in Topol’s oeuvre (though it precedes Nightwork in translation), 2005’s Gargling With Tar. Both books approach Prague Spring from the perspectives of child protagonists: in Gargling With Tar, the orphan Ilya, enlisted to assist the Red Army in their conquest; in Nightwork, thirteen-year-old Ondra Lipka, left to care for his younger brother Squirt in a provincial border town, while the boys’ dissident father hatches a plan for escape to the West. In an essay for The Quarterly Conversation, Madeleine LaRue writes, “In his aches and his orphanhood, Ilya stands for a whole generation of Czechs: abandoned by everyone, trapped in a time-ditch between two equally unappealing world orders, and forced to bear wounds that do not quite belong to him, he probably would have been just as happy to stay out of history,” and the same can be said for Nightwork’s Ondra, similarly abandoned. That Topol chooses to reckon with Prague Spring by means of the Bildungsroman—not once, but twice—suggests that an extended allegory is at work in his exploration of Czech history, and that the figure of a pubescent boy is appropriately representative of the country of his birth.
And Topol is clearly fond of allegories. Two-thirds into Nightwork, following a scuffle with Soviet troops and a few too many drinks, the schoolteacher Bohadlo delivers a rant. To his fellow barflies, Ondra and Squirt (the only “young people of school age in the establishment”), Bohadlo tells a fable of three brothers––Lech, Czech, and Rus—who, after escaping “servitude in Egypt,” part ways to settle in different lands (Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Russia, the Slavic legend tells us). According to Bohadlo, Czech is the stubborn brother, and decides to stay put on Blahoš Hill amongst the “old and sick . . . all kinds of pregnant whores and drunkards riddled with depression,” all of “the wise greybeards and the august warriors with their wives and virgins, all the capable tradesmen” having followed Lech to the sea. Eventually, these unfortunates strangle Czech to death, though they “wept terribly and said he’d been bitten by a snake.” Because these people, the Czechs, “were abysmally lazy, they lived in that trench, seeing as they’d toiled so hard on it. They made dens in there and little smoky fires and continued to multiply. The little children gathered berries and roots. Somehow they made a life for themselves.”
Bohadlo’s playful spin on this origin myth showcases Topol’s brand of humor, what LaRue calls “an acute sense for the hopelessly absurd,” which he shares with “most postwar Eastern European intellectuals.” But more than that, it reveals Czechness to be one of the novel’s major concerns. The unnamed village in which Topol sets Nightwork––a sort of Winesburg, Ohio in Mitteleuropa––is populated by many different camps: communists and Christians, gypsies and Jews. But somehow, they are all Czechs, and what it means to be Czech is what Topol’s characters negotiate through their various allegiances and grudges, conflicts and dalliances.
As colorfully illustrated as Topol’s characters are, they are also shrouded in mystery, secrets, and rumor. There is Polka: younger brother to Ondra’s father, he is a drunken ne’er-do-well nonetheless beloved by the townsfolk, charming enough to seduce Zuza, the daughter of the tavern keeper. Zuza is also the object of Ondra’s affections, and while the two manage to consummate a puppy love stoked by the flames of summers passed––Ondra sent to the village annually to stay with his grandfather––their affair is cut short when Zuza finds herself pregnant with Polka’s child. Polka’s promises of running away, starting a life somewhere else turn stale, and Zuza visits the town abortionist, “the Old Hag,” a clairvoyant gypsy who, we learn, is not only the grandmother of Ondra’s friend Standa, but also an ex-lover of Ondra’s grandfather. That grandfather, freshly dead upon his grandsons’ arrival, is no less mysterious: Ondra and Squirt stumble upon a secret room in his house where he is said to have waited out the Nazi occupation, finding “[s]tupid menorahs” and other relics of the prewar years, left forever unexplained. While Ondra’s parents are mostly absent from the novel, vague details emerge: the father, inventor of a certain “contraption,” has been fired from his job in the patent office, his inventions seized by the Party for destruction; his mother, once beautiful and cosmopolitan, has become an alcoholic following the sudden death of an adopted daughter, Eluzína, a girl who simply showed up in the village one day, origins unknown.
If all of this sounds melodramatic, that’s because it is. And yet, Topol is no sentimentalist, nor are his characters. Though they are all haunted by the past, they are overwhelmed by the need to move forward––because of the political situation, and because they are Czechs: they must, somehow, make a life for themselves. As such, details of past traumas are forgotten, if they were ever known or remembered to begin with. And Topol’s prose soldiers on with briskest urgency.
A Faulknerian shifting of perspectives frames Nightwork’s narration, the novel’s sequence of events pieced together through free indirect discourse and stream of consciousness. By ceding narrative control to characters like Zuza and Frída, the police constable, Topol is able to show the reader all that his protagonist doesn’t know, reinforcing the sense that Ondra is an outsider, keen observer though he may be. Not a boy, not yet a man: a character in between. And Ondra––more so than any other character in the novel, perhaps––is aware of his outsider status. Almost immediately upon arriving in his village, he learns of the necessity of obtaining the favor of the Líman brothers, less a familial unit than a gang, whose hazing Ondra begrudgingly survives, allowing him to informally append the name “Líman” to his own. The Líman gang, it turns out, is the most unified national front to be found in Nightwork: steadfast haters of gypsies and Ruskies alike, they harbor Ondra and his brother from the secret police, local representatives of the foreign invaders whom they assume to be after some sort of treasure hidden in the hills. While this youthful interpretation of the political situation is in some ways misguided, are they not in fact correct? What else could the Soviets be after but “treasure,” broadly defined?
In “The Destructors,” Graham Greene writes about a gang of boys who, during the London blitz, systematically gut the house of a man called “Old Misery,” a house which had survived the bombings, sticking “up like a jagged tooth” between two lots laid to waste. While the boys’ act of destruction seems random, nothing more than an exercise in juvenile anarchism (one gang member, referring to poor Old Misery, insists, “Of course I don’t hate him . . . There’d be no fun if I hated him”), Greene’s story reveals the boys to be politically astute, given the context: what more is war, in reality, than senseless destruction? Topol’s teenagers may fail to understand the nuances of Prague Spring, but they are attuned to its core, replicating a microcosm of political conflict through exclusivity, forced uniformity, violence, and betrayal. Ultimately, Ondra––the novel’s representative “new Czech”—has no choice but to fend for himself.
In Nightwork, Topol tends to keep his sentences short, creating a staccato rhythm, a tense, hectic mood. Even in his descriptions, much is left unsaid. His language succeeds in reflecting the unsettling and uncertain nature of the political climate. The dialogue is colloquial––doubtless a benefit to the original Czech, but a major setback to Marek Tomin’s English translation. Tomin, a Czech native raised in England, renders Topol’s prose in an unrelenting spew of slangy Britishisms—few exchanges survive an onslaught of “Blimeys,” “mates,” and “twats.” To American ears, this rings false, actively working against what vernacular language is usually enlisted to accomplish in novels: some sense of “authenticity,” a reality effect. It goes so far as to color Topol’s more heightened, “literary” language with the trace of an accent that seems out of place. While it’s funny to imagine Polka, in thick Cockney, asking the men at the pub, “Why, the remnants of Czechness will hold their own even in an eventual encounter with an extraterrestrial civilisation, at least as a touching and noteworthy memento of humanity, right?” as if he were a chimney sweep in Mary Poppins, it seems to distract from the novel’s larger concerns.
Topol’s world is weighed down by unanswerable questions and impossible tasks. One policeman tells another, “we must break the back of evil, that’s our nightwork.” But the night is never ending, the evil unbreakable. “The people will gobble you up like a worm and shit you out,” the policeman says. “And it doesn’t matter how big a man you are. This and nothing else is written in blood in the red heart of the Communist Manifesto.” While most of Topol’s boys strive to be men, his girls to be women, some men remain frozen in adolescence (not to mention Squirt, who prefers to wear his mother’s clothes). Lennon sings, “It’s gonna be alright,” but by the end of Nightwork, it’s unclear whether Topol would agree. History tells us that a new day will dawn, in 1989, but who knows how much evil will remain? For Ondra, as for all Czechs in 1968, the future is not guaranteed—there will be more darkness to endure.
Andrew Marzoni is a PhD Candidate in English at the University of Minnesota, currently living in New Orleans. He has written for The New York Observer, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and Review 31, among other publications.