The Devil’s Workshop, fifth novel by Czech writer Jàchym Topol, is based in history – namely the atrocities which took place in the East during the Second World War – but it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before, showing that there are still new things to say about World War 2, and still ways to say them that we haven’t seen before.
We first meet the narrator, who never gets a name, stumbling along the road to Prague to get to the airport, a bit drunk, having forced down his ‘meat for the road’. We later learn that he’s been eating his beloved goat, butchered, roasted and generously shared with him by local tramps. And he’s escaping from Terezin, known locally as the ‘town of death’ following terrible wartime massacres and evacuations to death camps further east.
After a spell in prison our narrator gets together with ‘Uncle Lebo’, a kind of local hero, to friend forms a commune to save Terezin from demolition, tapping anyone they can think of for donations to the cause. Their commune attracts people from all over Europe, regular tourists and people whose relatives died in the Holocaust, who have gone out of their minds thinking about it. They call them ‘bunk seekers’
“What the TV broadcast to the world, of course, was the story of the bunk seekers, who had come to the town of death in search of the world’s most horrible mystery, namely, absolute evil”
Helped by enthusiastic young students in their commune they start to get press coverage for their commune, otherwise known as an ‘international school of healing for students from around the world’. They create and sell death camp souvenirs, serve up ghetto pizza to tourists. Architecture students plan an ambitious architectural overhaul of the town’s ruins.
Our narrator is a pretty tough case. He shrugs his shoulders and thinks of something else when the tramps eat his goat. The only thing that brings him out in a sweat is the thought of going back to prison. This is how he ends up in Belarus when the government gets fed up and sends in the bulldozers. Having seen the media attention attracted by the Terezin commune, the Belarusians want in on the action. Whatever happened in the Terezin, Belarus can do better.
“It’s going to be the most famous memorial sit in the world. The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are here in Belarus. But nobody knows about them”.
As soon as our friend arrives in Minsk things go from bad to a surreal kind of worse. The president declares martial law, and the next pages pass in a faintly Garcia Marquez kind of haze (only narrated more directly, because we are in no nonsense East Europe). The Belarusians have an unimaginably gruesome plan to commemorate their atrocities which I’m not going to tell you about here for fear of spoiling the horrible surprise, suffice to say our friend wants out.
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. Topol apparently likes to combine fact and fiction in his novels, drawing on history for some of the most gruesome details. Here he has created something very original, whilst also managing to make the horrors of history relevant to the present day.
Any Cop?: Horrible, repelling, unusual, and very very good.