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The Devil's Workshop, By Jáchym Topol. Portobello, £12.99
Wednesday 18 September 2013
I n this novel Jáchym Topol explores two sites of genocide and asks the question: how should one commemorate past atrocities? The first part of The Devil's Workshop is set in Czechoslovakia. Topol's unnamed narrator grows up in the small fortress town of Terezín, famous for housing a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War. It also served as a ghetto and many inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other camps.
The narrator is an unlikely hero: a country lad, happiest when herding his goats. After his father's fatal fall from the town's ramparts, he is sent to prison accused of his murder. Here he becomes an executioner's assistant until capital punishment is abolished. He is finally released into an unfamiliar country, the Czech Republic, free from Communist rule.
On the narrator's return to Terezín, charismatic Uncle Lebo enlists him to help save the town from being demolished by turning it into a memorial. Then two Belarusians arrive, Alex and Maruška, and persuade the narrator to leave Terezín and help them fundraise for their own monument to the dead.
As Alex tells the narrator: "The devil had his workshop here in Belarus." The massacre of non-Jewish Belarusians in Khatyn was carried out by Nazi officers, Ukrainians and Soviet army deserters and was certainly not an isolated incident. Villagers were herded into a barn which was then barricaded and set on fire; all those who escaped were gunned down.
In Minsk things become more macabre. Belarus is, after all, renowned as Europe's last dictatorship and Topol exploits this with savage humour. The president and the opposition are apparently united in their desire to utilise burial sites to develop tourism. It is fitting that a poet and novelist prominent in his youth in the Czech underground should continue to tackle the sort of subjects many would prefer left alone.
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.
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