Book review - The Devil’s Workshop

In his latest novel to be translated into English, Jáchym Topol, hailed as one of the leading lights in Czech literature, explores two historical 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 during the Second World War. It also served as a ghetto and many of its inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. The protagonist’s mother, rescued from a typhus pit at the end of the war, never fully recovered from her experiences and dies in tragic circumstances.

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 father’s murder. Here he becomes an executioner’s assistant until capital punishment is abolished. When he is finally released it is into an unfamiliar country, the Czech Republic, free from communist rule and now a part of Europe.

On the narrator’s return to Terezín, Uncle Lebo, a charismatic figure from his childhood, enlists him to help save the town from being demolished by turning it into a memorial. Lebo was born during the war under a bunk in the ghetto. Travellers, known as “bunk seekers”, begin to pour into the town and celebrities start pledging money to Lebo’s cause. 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: “It’s going to be the most famous memorial site in the world. The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them.”  At the heart of The Devil’s Workshop lies a horrific act of genocide. The massacre of non-Jewish Belarusians in Khatyn, a village on the outskirts of Minsk, was carried out by Nazi officers, Ukrainians and Soviet army deserters and was certainly not an isolated incident. The villagers were herded into a barn which was then barricaded and set on fire. Those who managed to escape through the burning doors were gunned down.

On arriving in Minsk, the protagonist’s encounters become more macabre. Belarus is, after all, renowned as Europe’s last dictatorship and Topol exploits this to great effect with savage humour. He recalls the tent camp set up by the opposition to protest against the outcome of the presidential election, parodies Aliaksandr Lukashenko’s declaration of martial law and provides a vivid snapshot of a country where the predominant art forms are guerrilla theatre and underground poetry. As tanks parade down the wide boulevards, students work in a deep cavern unearthing and organising the bones of those massacred during the Holocaust. The president and the opposition are apparently united in their desire to utilise burial sites in order to develop tourism. The narrator’s eyes are finally opened when he discovers that Alex’s vision for a memorial includes the murder of elderly citizens, embalmed and transformed into talking corpses who describe how they were murdered in Khatyn.

It is fitting that a poet and novelist prominent in his youth in the Czech underground should continue to tackle the sort of subjects that many would prefer to be 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 the horrors of their past.

A shorter version of this review appeared in The Independent