Country Focus: Czech Republic (Cesko); formerly Czechoslovakia
Gargling with Tar
By Jáchym Topol
Translated by David Short
Originally published in Czech as Kloktat Dehet by Torst Publishers Praha, 2005.
My edition: Portobello Books, 2013
Time period: The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968
Notes: Award-winning Czech author Jachym Topol was arrested multiple times for the creation and distribution of samizdat, Soviet-censored publications. He currently writes for the national daily newspaper Lidové noviny.
World Lit Up Rating:
(On a scale of 1-5, with 1 book = turned off and 5 books = lit up)
Gargling with Tar is full of bizarre characters and events: a mentally disabled boy called Monkeyface; a legless Major who supports himself on crutches; orphans trained to be saboteurs; a Soviet tank column tasked to set up a circus; an East German midget acrobat; altar boys who turn to banditry; and a dinosaur egg rumored to be a secret weapon. Their common denominator is a Czech boy named Ilya, prized for his cartographic skills. This novel was a tough read for me for four reasons. 1) Topol does not include any historical context, so being unfamiliar with the Soviet invasion left me at a disadvantage. 2) The British translation stymied me; it’s hard to try to comprehend a different culture via terms and phrases that aren’t found in American English. 3) I found it challenging to read a book that includes virtually no description of place or character. I didn’t know what the orphanage looked like, nor the town, nor the surrounding forest nor any of the characters unless they had physical or mental oddities. 4) There’s no depth to any of the characters, so I had a difficult time telling all of the boys from the orphanage apart. It felt like I was reading through tar.
Leaping high above the tank Dago turned somersaults, accompanied by all kinds of sounds coming from his tiny throat — deep, drawling groans and squeaky shrieks, and now and then even little tunes — and this medley of sounds seemed to converge on us from all sides until some of the gunners began looking about them in terror. Then with his little legs Dago did a pitter-patter run-up and started leaping from tank to tank, and in this way he cartwheeled and pirouetted his way around all the tanks in the column, and the soldiers’ delight grew and grew, and then Dago executed the highlight of his turn: in the middle of a mighty leap he made himself small, getting smaller and smaller, looking no bigger than a football. Rolled up like that, he landed in Captain Yegorov’s arms, and now he mooed and whined and bleated like a baby, which was side-splittingly funny, because the baby in Captain Yegorov’s arms had a mustache and the wrinkled face of a dwarf.