Jáchym Topol (b. 1962) is arguably the most important representative of the postmodern trend in post-1989 Czech prose. He is a poet, prose writer and journalist, lyricist and musician. Winner of numerous literary prizes, including the Tom Stoppard Prize and the Vilenica Prize for contributions to Central European literature. His books have been published in more than ten languages, including English, German, Spanish and Norwegian.
He is the son of the playwright Josef Topol and the brother of the musician and composer Filip Topol. In the 1980s he wrote lyrics for his band Psí vojáci. His poems have also been set to music by Monika Načeva. He had various manual jobs under the totalitarian regime, and after 1990 he worked as a journalist at Respekt and Lidové noviny, he ran Revolver revue, and today he heads the Václav Havel Library in Prague.
He first published his work in samizdat form and has gradually moved from poems to prose. His first books presented his poems from the 1980s, and the collection Miluju tě k zbláznění (I Love You Madly, Atlantis, 1991) and V úterý bude válka (The War Will Be on Tuesday, Vokno, 1992) were brought out in quick succession.
There then followed the novel Sestra (City Sister Silver, Atlantis, 1994), which is still regarded as one of the best literary depictions of the wretchedness of 1980s Czechoslovakia and the transition to freedom – on the one hand euphoric, on the other hand full of a dangerous rapaciousness, a desire to try everything first-hand immediately. A state of disintegration and chaos is characteristic of freedom, and it affects each of the novel’s characters. City Sister Silver also represents a transition in Topol’s work – from poems to prose, from romantic and existential positions to destruction and apocalyptic depictions. Topol’s language is elemental, heart-rending and ferocious, it rushes in tempo and describes a stream of existence leading from nowhere to nowhere.
There then followed the novella Výlet k nádražní hale (A Trip to the Train Station, Petrov, 1995) and the Smíchov ballad Anděl (Angel Station, Hynek, 1995), which was used as the basis for a film. Then came the set of Native American myths and legends Trnová dívka (Thorn Girl, Hynek, 1997). The heroes of the novel Noční práce (Nightwork, Hynek, Torst, 2001) and the dramatic farce Kloktat dehet (Gargling with Tar, Torst, 2005) are searching for their place in the world – their mothers are either weak or are completely absent, and grasping the world around them is complicated for the heroines who are growing up and have never known the support and safety of a balanced family. Whereas in Nightwork the background to the story is formed by the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, in the book Gargling with Tar the author mocks the glorified category of war hero through the suffering of the characters.
A fragment of a newly prepared novel Mongolský vlk was published in a limited edition entitled Zlatá hlava (Golden Head, Torst, 2005). This was followed by the collection Supermarket sovětských hrdinů (Supermarket of Soviet Heroes, Torst, 2007), in which the publisher brought together texts by Topol which were inaccessible or had only been published in magazines. Four years after his last novel, readers were eagerly awaiting Topol’s latest book, the acclaimed Chladnou zemí (The Devil’s Workshop, Torst, 2009), for which the author was awarded the Jaroslav Seifert Prize.
Topol’s novella centres on Terezín, with its memory of place – and the question of whether this memory should be preserved or buried. As Ladislav Nagy writes in a review on iLiteratura, “The Devil’s Workshop is not even intended as a large-scale, epic narrative which absorbs the reader, but rather as a semi-documentary text brimming over with facts and statistics, leaving the reader better informed and pondering what he has learned from it, the reader standing at the beginning of a new story in which disturbing questions remain but the backdrop is becoming the very world around us – a story with an ending which is open, just as the conclusion to Topol’s book is.”