The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol (translated by Alex Zucker)
4 stars - Highly Recommended by Kate
Publisher: Portobello Books
Guest review by Kate Vane
This novel by Czech writer Jáchym Topol is a dark satire which asks troubling questions on what we should remember and what we should forget.
The unnamed narrator grows up in Terezín, a town which houses a Medieval fortress and a former Nazi prison. His father is a military bandsman, his mother a survivor of the prison, as are most of the people of the town. The narrator grows up, in a mockery of a pastoral idyll, herding goats on the fortifications, scrabbling in underground tunnels for Nazi memorabilia and failing to live up to his father’s ambitions before he is forced to leave.
Years later he returns to Terezín. The army has left and the authorities no longer want to maintain the town. His “uncle”, Lebo, born in the Nazi prison, is determined that nothing should be lost. They begin a protest movement which draws international attention – and lucrative opportunities as they sell souvenir T-shirts and accommodate visitors and obtain funding from philanthropists worldwide. Then political upheaval means the narrator has to leave for Belarus where the book takes a darker turn.
The narrator has a sly naivety. He recounts events as he experiences them, stripped of context. This can make it difficult at times to follow events. There is an afterword by the translator which fills in some of the gaps but I think he was right to put it at the end. It means that like the narrator, the reader experiences conflict and instability as most people do when they are at the heart of them –seeing details, specifics, without a coherent narrative, which is only imposed later, and somehow make whatever occurred seem inevitable.
The narrator has no sense of history, only of a home. He accepts the world as he finds it and makes the best of the opportunities he sees. In contrast, Terezín attracts what he calls the “bunk seekers”. They are distinct from the casual sightseers who take photos and walk the heritage trail. They are western descendants of Holocaust survivors who believe they have a personal interest in the town’s story. They look for meaning in the prison camp, something to give them an identity.
The book’s humour lies in the way it overturns assumptions. Sara, a bunk seeker from Sweden, berates the narrator. She, not he, is the one that truly suffers the legacy of Terezín. His complexes only arise because of what he’s lived through. Hers are a product of her unique personality.
The simple language of the book contrasts with the complexity of the ideas as the story turns in on itself. How is the past commodified, and for whose benefit? If you don’t know your history, does it still shape you? Does it even make sense to call it “yours”?
This book is dark, unsettling and raises lots of questions. It also resolutely refuses to provide any answers.
Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End. She lives on the Devon coast in the UK.