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on 28 December 2015
Am not impressed by this short, bleak novel situated during WW II and in 2008 in the Czech republic (part 1) and Belarus (part 2), but with plenty of flashbacks. Its starting point is promising: why do so many second and third generation Holocaust survivors visit the sites of mass murder? Is it about how the West and East remember their WW II dead: with monuments, plaques, beautifully maintained graveyards, annual remembrance days and ceremonies, but rarely anything special for Jews? Is that why so many young people are drawn to Terezin aka Theresienstadt, an ancient bulwarked garrison town with a Nazi camp and railhead for transports eastward? How will they appreciate this novel?
It is not brilliantly composed or written. Its characters are not well drawn or riveting. The nameless narrator admits early on that he served time for killing his own father and helped the sole Czech executioner calm down men facing death by hanging, earning him early release and return to his origins, Terezin and its subterraneous warrens and tunnels. As a child, he gave Lebo, a man miraculously born in and surviving the camp, whatever he found underground. Released, he serves him as internet fundraiser and campaign manager helping Lebo become a Holocaust guru attracting ever more tourists whilst local authorities are keen to shut down every memory of WW II: Terezin was becoming a game park.
The much weaker part 2, about what happens next in Belarus, is for readers to discover. Find it not in good taste. Topol’s novel is short, engaging and lively, eventful even. His arguing about what constitutes the East (and West) is perhaps new. His reflections about totalitarianism and genocide are not always original. The author’s own and his translator’s afterword are helpful for some to make further sense of this book. Nonetheless, what is the point Topol tries to make?
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on 18 April 2015
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.
This review first appeared on TNBBC's book blog
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on 5 September 2013
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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