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The Devil's Workshop

The Devil's Workshop [Kindle Edition]

Jáchym Topol
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Topol is seen by critics and readers as the definitive writer of the post-Communism era in Prague, as a voice of transition from Marx to market - Boyd Tonkin, "Independent"

Topol writes sincerely, passionately - Cees Nooteboom --Independent

The Devil's Workshop touches on a rawer nerve. Topol's critique of the Holocaust Industry is, intellectually at least, his most sophisticated. Zucker, who translated The Devil's Workshop, does a remarkably fine job of conveying Topol s idiosyncratic slang and suggestions of dialect without resorting to affectation. Zucker has brought both sides of Topol, his irony and his sincerity, to us intact. --Quarterly Conversation

Humour so treacly black it almost chokes you. --Guardian

Horrible, repelling, unusual, and very very good ... Throughout The Devil's Workshop Topol doesn t put a foot wrong. The timing is brilliant, the deadpan narration takes us from horror to kitsch and back again, a little bit of black comedy and zeitgeist commentary along the way, a whiff of the fantastic even though the subject couldn't be more real. Here he has created something very original, whilst also managing to make the horrors of history relevant to the present day. --Bookmunch

Tautly written, pacey and provocative. Shifting from comic to tragic and back again at the turn of a page, The Devil's Workshop is an accomplished and highly assured novel from a writer going from strength to strength and fully deserving of his growing reputation. --New Internationalist

Blending fact and fiction, Topol's darkly comic novel, lucidly translated by Alex Zucker, is a hard-hitting exploration of two nations bedevilled by past horrors. --Independent

Product Description

The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them'. A young boy grows up in Terezín - an infamous fortress town with a sinister past. Together with his friends he plays happily in this former Nazi prison, scouting the tunnels for fragments of history under the careful eye of one of its survivors, Uncle Lebo, until one day there is an accident, and he is forced to leave. Returning to Terezín many years later, he joins Lebo's campaign to preserve the town, but before long the authorities impose a brutal crack-down, chaos ensues, and the narrator finds himself fleeing to Belarus, where fresh horrors drive him ever closer to the evils he had hoped to escape. Bold, brilliant and blackly comic, The Devil's Workshop paints a deeply troubling portrait of two countries dealing with their ghosts and asks: at what point do we consign the past to history?

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 434 KB
  • Print Length: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Portobello Books (6 Jun 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00D487X6E
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #311,416 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
0 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GOAT IS KING. 5 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Fact, Goat,s cleared Glass Land. Around the Terezin, Red Fortress. Not Allowing Any Enemy Attacker. Any Cover. Harsh, but Enjoyable Read. Executing Assistant, Underground Passages. The Fall of Terezin. Even the Goat Number,s Decrease. Second Part of Book. Set in the Killing Field,s of Belarus. Even if You Did Not Know, Who Killed Who. Translator,s Final Passage. Very Informative. Will Not Be the Last Jachym Topol Book. In My Hands.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth review: lest who forgets? 19 Aug 2013
By John L Murphy - Published on
Jáchym Topol deserves your attention. Through a punk-inspired, postmodern energy erupting from his Czech homeland against its oppressors, he conveys verve, intellect, and, beneath the trot of his clipped or galloping prose, tenderness: if in Central European precedent rationed out to each according to his or her own needs. From a dissident family, a poet and a reporter for a samizdat newspaper, he helped his nation topple totalitarianism, finally doing so in 1989 by the gentle but insistent Velvet Revolution.

Topol's debut fiction conjured up diabolical vignettes memorably. Out of five hundred pages of closely printed, dreamlike, and dense scenes, Mr. Novak and his heap of bones at Auschwitz loomed largest in his hallucinatory, bewildering 1994 trilogy City Sister Silver--translated ably by Alex Zucker in 2000. (Reviewed here 6-13-03.) Even in the original language, that first novel confounded native speakers with its disjointed assault.

Topol returns to English audiences for his fifth novel (it appeared in Czech in 2009), with his much more matter-of-fact, unnamed narrator's voice channeled again through his Brooklyn translator, who captures Topol's conversational, insistent tone intimately. Zucker dedicates the work to the author, "my brother from another mother".

This short novel extends Topol's political direction adroitly, and more calmly. It starts in the teller's native town of historic Terezín. Under the Nazis, this became the "city for the Jews"-- to show off their supposedly humane treatment to the Red Cross. After Soviet "liberation", Lebo, himself born in the imposing camp just prior to its downfall, survives as its guardian, to protect the humbler garrison town against obliteration by the post-Soviet government, who compromises by preserving only the camp. Lebo and those who've grown up there, many children of the camp survivors, rally. "Lebo didn't want to see Terezín reduced to a Monument and a few educational trails. None of us wanted that."

A commune rises, a loose camp of its own. (As Zucker notes in an afterword, this anticipates Occupy and other movements: he translated this in the fall of 2011 in New York City.) This attracts "bunk seekers", the second and third generations who search in the camps and bleak villages for traces of their forebears who had outlasted the genocide, or more often, that vastly larger contingent: those who had died. Haunted, their descendants must ask: "If it happened here, can it happen again?"

In The Devil's Workshop, the narrator does not play the role of a tour guide. This may stem from the familiarity of this site to Czechs; it may deepen the detached nature of the narrator's recollections about refusing to play to sentiment, as well as Topol's preference for efficient, even dry, reporting rather than effusions.

Some sober pilgrims, descendants of the Czech patriots and Jewish masses kept and killed there, turn communal dwellers. "They knew they weren't in a medieval castle, but in an abyss where the world had been torn apart, a place without mercy or compassion, where anything was possible."

The narrator--back from prison--and his comrades aid Lebo by appealing to the conscience or the bank accounts of the wealthy to sustain Terezín. They amass valuable contacts. For a while, this grassroots experiment in self-sufficiency flourishes: goods are sold to tourists and ingenuity brings in cash. Sara designs a popular t-shirt, altering a certain Czech writer's image with a gallows and a stencil. "Theresienstadt: If Franz Kafka hadn't died, they would have killed him here." (This is as lighthearted as the suitably titled The Devil's Workshop gets.) By such enterprise, and by restoring the mentally ill and recuperating the bunk seekers, the modest commune succeeds.

But, its commitment cannot fend off the jealousy of bureaucrats. Scandals around Lebo are concocted by an envious press. The narrator flees, soon after meeting an older arrival at the campsite: Alex from Belarus, often called Europe's last dictatorship. Alex wants to turn the clout of Terezín's online support network against the despots of his own post-Soviet homeland, still fighting amongst itself.

Sneaking away as Terezín succumbs to "cops and doctors all over the place on account of a couple of grannies" (shades of Occupy), the narrator escapes via Prague and flies to Minsk. There, Belarusians clash as the president declares martial law. In Khatyn, Alex, leading a team of seekers more feral and less coddled than those who could afford to frequent Terezín, unearths catacombs packed with corpses. Matuska, who had ferried the narrator to safety across borders, urges him to do the math.

Stalin's henchmen murdered ninety percent of her nation's intellectuals. Czechoslovakia and Belarus have equal populations, but over ten times as many of the latter people were killed by the Nazis--and their Russian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian collaborators. Alex informs the narrator: "The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them. That's why you're here." Publicity and donors will enable Khatyn to outdraw tourists to Auschwitz.

The battle over who controls the remains of four million Belarusians, what such numbers mean to a divided and shamed country where some assisted and some resisted, and who grabs their share of the tourist trade and international assistance elicits Topol's understated but firm pressure as he explores a touchy subject. This is one subject that all Belarus can agree on, and besides the income, this may achieve what a wounded nation needs for the living: the ability to finally let the dead rest in peace.

But first, their stories must be recorded, lest we forget. Topol dramatizes this in the latter half of the novel. Under the determined vision of Kagan, who as a boy made it through the ghetto and the mass grave, and Alex and their team of excavators in a land where all are bunk seekers, we see the results. Alex constructs what will be a museum unlike any other, out of a "Jurassic Park of horror".

I leave the reader to uncover the resolution. Topol integrates real accounts of barbarity skillfully into the quick snatches of testimony, and to his credit for this difficult theme, he does not revel in the re-creation of suffering. Yet, this novel proves grim. The narrator stays fresh in Zucker's translation through his everyday language and Everyman persona. But he must scurry about the settings the author designs for him as if fated. Topol turns an approachable character into a portentous archetype.

As with his debut fiction, Topol wants to merge ideas and symbols into his perspective on the current Central and Eastern European predicament, dealing with the aftermath of of pain and deprivation. In a literary tale as short as this, while the results are more accessible for first time readers of his work, the meanings threaten to loom too large for it to carry. As the narrator finds: "soldiers come into the village and kill, houses and people burn--repeating over and over" the terrible stories then and now.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic! 9 July 2013
By Celise Kalke - Published on
I think the Zucker/Topol colloboration one of the finest examples of literary translation. This work is gripping, poetically disconnected, haunting, and changes the way you look at the world. It is a great read, it made me expand my knowledge of the BelloRussia experience of WWII and think about the use of history as a lens on today. But these are academic thoughts - mostly this is a fantastic novel not to be missed.
3.0 out of 5 stars Concentration camps as tourist venues? 20 July 2014
By TonyMess - Published on
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.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book 20 Dec 2013
By Captain Hook (Sam) - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is very interesting - deep and rich work of art by one of the Czech Republic's most interesting authors translated by Alex Zucker
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