The 1990s saw the rise of Jáchym Topol as a writer, and by its end it was clear that Topol was an established figure on the new Czech literary landscape. By the year 2000, when Jáchym Topol: Nemůžu se zastavit ("I can't stop") was published by the Czech publishing house Portál, Topol was one of the most prolific writers of the post-1989 era, and certainly the most widely translated and world renowned. He traveled far and wide to give readings, and plans were already underway to turn his second novel, Anděl (Angel), into a movie (read a review of the film in this week's issue). It was extremely fitting, therefore, that Portál decided to include Topol in its "Conversations" (Rozhovory) series.
The interviews that led to Nemůžu se zastavit were conducted by the publicist Tomáš Weiss, who was the editor of a music publication in 1998 and is currently a journalist for AD magazine. Nemůžu se zastavit, written in Czech, will presumably not be translated into English, which is a pity, as non-Czech readers will lose the invaluable insight into Topol's life and personality that the book offers. But the Czech population, for whom this book is intended, will have the opportunity to have, through Weiss's questions, a vicarious conversation with the young author.
Weiss divides the text into seven chapters, with an "intro" and an "exit," rather than an introduction and epilogue. By choosing the words "intro" and "exit," Weiss seems to be adopting Topol's own fictional discourse. The chapters are divided chronologically as well as thematically. Weiss's questions follow the linear trajectory of Topol's life but are grouped according to particular subjects in the book. For example, Chapter Three is about Topol's participation in various journalistic publications and Chapter Five is about Topol's trip to America, though the questions are primarily concerned with his interest in Native Americans.
A non-stop life
By the middle of the book, the reader easily realizes why Weiss chose to entitle it "I Can't Stop." Topol lives life to its exhaustible fullest. When he was active in the samizdat-era Revolver Revue and Respekt journals, he was constantly editing, writing, publishing and traveling. He refers to his two years with Respekt as flying by as if they were but one second. He and his fellow journalists lived in the office and were always on the trail of a new investigation or busy putting together the next issue.
When Topol is asked to talk about his first novel, Sestra (meaning "sister" in Czech but translated into English as City Sister Silver), he describes a three-month-long stay in a village near Cologne, Germany, where he began writing the work. He won a writing fellowship from the Ministry of Culture, which ultimately produced Sestra. In the short time that he spent in Germany, he plunged himself into writing with such force that he barely slept or ate. His days were so consumed with the act of writing that his health faltered. He rested for two days and resumed his manic pace.
The book reveals that it is not merely Topol's work that is so hectic but also his life. For various, but mostly economic, reasons Topol has moved countless times. For one period in his early adult life, he was living in several different locations at once, stashing his belongings at the homes of several close friends. Since his marriage to his wife Bára and the birth of their daughter, Marie, he has maintained one domicile, but it appears to be in a constant state of flux.
At the time of the first interview between Topol and Weiss, Topol was once again on the move. In the intro, Weiss quotes a conversation between himself and the writer before the interviews began, in which Topol enlists Weiss's help ferrying boxes to a new apartment. It is after this that the two finally sit down at a pub and Weiss turns on the tape recorder.
A different kind of Czech
Unlike the language used in his writings, Topol's spoken Czech is very proper. He rarely uses profanity. He comes across as very polite. The reader gets the sense that perhaps he was not the easiest subject to interview, for he is not always forthcoming with his answers and is sometimes impatient with Weiss for posing annoying queries. Nevertheless, he obliges his interlocutor with candid replies.
Topol respectfully declines to discuss his immediate family in too much detail. The only family member he talks about to any extent is his brother, Filip Topol, who is the singer and pianist of the popular band Psí vojáci. He briefly touches upon his marriage and the birth of his daughter but shies away from getting too personal about them. He does not seem to have such discretion when it comes to himself. He openly talks about his first marriage to Veronika Bartošková, which ended when she decided to become a nun.
Topol is very open about his escapades as a young boy and the way in which he struggled against the Communist regime. Being the son of a dissident playwright, he faced undue scrutiny from the state. He describes many situations in which he was interrogated and stopped by the police. He is not afraid or unwilling to look back at those pre-1989 times. He is very proud of the fact that he never collaborated with the State Security Services.
In Chapter Two, Weiss brings up the often touchy subject of military service. Topol avoided serving in the army by having a doctor declare him mentally unfit and send him to a psychiatric institution.
The creative process
Topol does not seem to find it interesting to talk about his early literary works. By 1999, Sestra was already five years old, and Topol clearly feels that he has evolved since then. But he acknowledges the interest in his first novel by answering, albeit somewhat reluctantly, the questions pertaining to it.
These interviews will probably dispel any preconceived opinions of Topol which the reader may have. If there is one character trait that emerges above all others, it is his incapability of letting others think for him. He does not submit to any trends. A good example of this is his attitude toward drug use. He disagrees with the rationale that since drugs were part of the lifestyles of many ancient cultures, one can engage in free-for-all substance abuse.
Also, Topol is shy about reading his works in public and is humble about his success. After reading Nemůžu se zastavit, many readers will probably want to sit down and have a chat with him over a beer. However, few will have the chance.
Caroline Kovtun, 29 January 2001
- Read Chapter One of Jáchym Topol's City Sister Silver in CER
- Read Caroline Kovtun's review of Jáchym Topol's City, Sister, Silver
- Read a review of Anděl Exit, a film based on Jáchym Topol's novel Anděl
- Reading Topol: A list of available literature
- Buy Nemůžu se zastavit from the Vltava online bookstore
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on the Czech Republic through CER
- Return to CER front page