Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"The iron hammers of the age"

Jáchym and Filip Topol, 18th October

The International Anthony Burgess Foundation was the perfect venue for this evening of music and literature borne of the struggle for free speech and liberty. Czech writer Jáchym Topol (pictured above in conversation with Alexandra Buchler from Literature Across Frontiers) and his musician brother Filip, are sons of a prominent dissident intellectual. Their lives and careers have been inextricably intertwined with the turbulent course of post-war European history.

Filip Topol began his performing career aged just twelve, when he played for the playwright and future President, Vaclav Hável. Apologising for his English, which, he declared, is “not too beautiful” he transfixed the audience with his driving, percussive piano playing. A dynamic performer, the drama of his playing was nicely offset by his understated, husky vocals; he has released many albums as a solo artist and band member, and the versatility of his style encompasses elements of Central European folk music, modern classical, even a touch of klezmer. The clear acoustics of the IABF work admirably, and the centre shows great promise as a music venue.

Attention then turned to the elder Topol brother, Jáchym, a well-known poet, novelist and journalist in the Czech Republic whose work has only recently begun to appear in English. Hearing him read from his new novel, Gargling With Tar, in Czech showed him to be an animated reader who clearly loves the language he works in. The novel itself concerns the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Topol’s protagonist, a young boy growing up in an orphanage, greets the coming Russian troops with a mixture of horror and fascination. This is not so much history reclaimed as re-imagined; Topol imagines an uprising against the invading forces that never in fact happened and this, he tells the audience, is the central irony of the book. From the extracts Topol reads, it seems that stylistically the book draws on both fairy tale and disaster movie idioms to convey the trauma of the child’s experience of conflict. It begins, “the sky is falling down”.

Between readings, Topol talks of himself and his career. He speaks of his admiration for Anthony Burgess, whom he discovered as a teenager through a samizdat edition of A Clockwork Orange. It made him feel he had encountered a prophet. It is apposite that this writer, whose career is bound up with the struggle for free speech, should be reading in this venue name for another novelist who fought the censor’s pen. Jáchym Topol clearly values the free speech so recently granted to much of Europe. Yet he is thoughtful about some of its consequences; he worries that, in a world where everyone talks, writes and comments constantly, it becomes harder to say anything meaningful. Where everything can be said, words perhaps lose their impact. There is no hint of nostalgia in Topol’s meditation on mass communication; but he offers a timely reminder of one of the paradoxes of a situation where capitalism has triumphed: the freedoms that it offers become harder to appreciate.

Jáchym Topol is clearly a bold and innovative talent, and his work promises to be a fascinating addition to European literature in English. His work offers an insight into a tumultuous time still fresh in the memories of many, but rarely represented in literature. This event was thoroughly enjoyable for the sheer quality of the Topol brothers’ work, and the knowledge that we are privileged with the liberty to experience it gave it an unforgettable vitality.

by Elinor Taylor

Elinor studied Philosophy at Manchester University. She is currently studying for a PhD on Nineteen Thirties fiction at the University of Salford, where she also teaches Creative Writing.

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