After a four year break, the long awaited new novel by Jáchym Topol has been published. And what a book! Much like his internationally acclaimed novel Night Work the main character in Gargling with Tar is a young boy, with the other common element being the significance of the fatal year 1968. This is where the similarities end, the only resemblance one may detect is with the grand novel Die Blechtrommel by Günther Grass.
The hero Ilja is an orphan whose small world is brutally invaded by the stirring post-war history of Czechoslovakia, giving Ilja has just one goal: to live. Whatever one can say about the book, it is, above all, about the most basic survival instinct. Unlike what some critics claim, this is certainly not a parody. This book is dark, frightening sometimes. The events of 1968, the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia, in the second part of the book, is however not the real theme. 1968 is merely a catalyst for Iljas life on the edge. The first part takes place in the orphanage, while the second part moves on to the limited outside world.
The best one can do is to have Topol himself characterize his book. To him it is like a computer game. In the first part one is looking and searching, trying out all kind of different doors, encountering different things. But then in the end you finally open the right door (or is it perhaps the fatal wrong one?) and all hell breaks loose. Then, in an increasingly phantasmagoric world, you have to fight and kill your way to the apocalyptic end, because that is what a computer game is all about, evading death. And like in a computer game, you wander off, take wrong turns, encounter new things that may lead to new adventures, but are not on the path that you’re supposed to follow. Topol courageously lets all these potent new motives simply die out.
Gargling with Tar is a book about survival by all means. It has the pace of a thundering armoured train, it rolls over you like a Tiger tank, just to leave the reader behind breathless and devastated.
“Gargling with Tar is a crashing, free-wheeling tank ride of a book. It is set in the Bohemian forests in 1968, during the crushing of the Prague spring of Topol’s boyhood. Yet its version is not entirely trustworthy: gargling with coal-tar soap is the punishment for telling fibs in the boys’ home where the orphan narrator grows up.”
“Few Czech novelists have tackled 1968 head-on. Topol does so with bracing irreverence as well as pity.”
— Maya Jaggi, The Independent
“Crawling out from under the shadow of Kundera, a new generation of Czech novelists is reaching the Anglo-Saxon world, and Topol is one of the most rated writers in Prague.”
— Tibor Fischer, The Guardian
Selected published translations (8)
Spoelen met teerzeep Dutch
Strefa cyrkowa Polish
Gárgaras con alquitrán Spanish
Zone cirque French
Å gurgle tjære Norwegian
Gargling with Tar English