New novel by jachym topol: urge to rebel

In "A Sensitive Man," Topol sends a peculiar rump family on an odyssey through Czech petty bourgeois society.

Jachym Topol, born in 1962, signed Charter 77 as a teenager Photo: Susanne Schleyer

The boy doesn’t say a single word in almost 500 pages. But if there is a main character at all in Jachym Topol’s new novel, it is him. Presumably, he is also the "sensitive person" who gave the whole thing its title.

The boy is part of a peculiar little family, consisting of a not-so-young father who says of himself: "Until my death I will remain a Czechoslovakian, but my children are only Czechs," a very young mother who was born only after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the boy himself, who remains throughout not only speechless but also nameless and ageless, and a little brother.

Actually, this little brother is his twin, but so retarded that he is still only baby-sized – except for his sexual organ, the only part of his body that develops normally. As an itinerant acting couple, father and mother travel through Europe with the children in tow, eking out a living by performing.

But times have become harder; they are less and less welcome, are expelled, and embark on an adventurous journey home, aided by a surprise disappearance of their father’s brother, who emigrated to the Soviet Union years ago and now returns to stir up the old country as a Russian mafioso.

A breadcrumb trail through the literary landscape

Retelling a novel by Jachym Topol adequately is difficult. Not because there is no plot thread, for that is certainly present here as well. But it merely functions as a precarious breadcrumb trail through a literary landscape full of shallows, craggy chasms, and phantasmagorical fog fields.

Topol is originally a lyricist. According to the breadcrumb structure, "A Sensitive Man" is a kind of metaphorical road movie in prose, or even a station drama. For the family’s hurried journey continues in the old Bohemian homeland, in the area around the Sazava River. No sooner do they arrive at the run-down old grandfather’s house than he dies. They lose their mother in an unexplained incident at the local hospital; and because the father, in the heat of the moment, hurls a policewoman over a bridge railing, he is now on the run all the more.

The cold egocentrism of an entire society is reflected in the brambles of the novel’s characters.

They lose their belongings to the local mobsters, flee in drag, escape by a hair’s breadth from an aggressive motorcycle gang, meet several nice prostitutes, an Aquarius-like figure and other questionable characters. The whole thing has a strong episodic character.

Jachym Topol, born in 1962, belongs to a generation where one is old enough to have already been a dissident in Czechoslovakia (in fact, he, the son of a well-known playwright, signed Charter 77 as a teenager). That’s what shapes you. The urge to rebel against encrusted structures, against the narrow-mindedness of a bourgeois society, is noticeably still the driving force behind Topol’s writing.

The protagonists of this new book, the artist father with his small mute sons, are outsiders in a society that, on the other hand, is pretty much left out of the picture here, since the novel is set only at its slum edges anyway.

Avenues of Devastation

From there, he cuts targeted paths of devastation in the direction of the social center – for example, with the aid of a falling maypole that abruptly transforms the Czech village idyll into a deadly inferno, or in the form of a father and son who devastate an allotment garden colony in their wild escape. The allotment gardeners’ revenge follows on its heels, however, and results in the death of a surreal tragic character named "Scale," who is human but whom one inevitably imagines to be a water sprite – a figure that appears frequently in Czech folk mythology (and not least in the film).

Topol touches on countless cultural references. He does not paint a picture of the real Bohemia in this novel. Rather, he sends his small male hulk family on an odyssey through a weird wonderland full of signs and quotations.

The carnivalesque hustle and bustle repeatedly brings to light a piece of social reality. Czech President Miloš Zeman also makes an appearance – as the interlocutor of a toilet attendant with whom he conducts an absurd xenophobic dialogue.

The stubborn brambling of the novel’s characters reflects, in grotesquely distorted form, the narrow-mindedness and cold egocentrism of an entire society.

Jachym Topol: "A Sensitive Man". Translated from Czech by Eva Profousova. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2019, 494 p., 25 euros.

In themselves, times may have changed. The political system is different, but people have remained true to themselves in their own way. One could despair of this if one does not decide to see above all the grotesque in it. As sad as that may be on the one hand, it’s great for literature on the other.

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