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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Devil's Workshop

Jáchym Topol

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To purchase The Devil's Workshop

Title: The Devil's Workshop
Author: Jáchym Topol
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 166 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: The Devil's Workshop - US
The Devil's Workshop - UK
The Devil's Workshop - Canada
The Devil's Workshop - India
L'atelier du diable - France
Die Teufelswerkstatt - Deutschland
L'officina del diavolo - Italia
  • Czech title: Chladnou zemí
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Alex Zucker

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Our Assessment:

B : decent if somewhat limited and stuttering attempt at dealing with horrors of the past and/in the present

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 5/7/2013 Jane Housham
The Independent . 18/9/2013 Lucy Popescu
NZZ A 20/4/2010 Jörg Plath
Die Welt . 10/4/2010 Paul Jandl

  From the Reviews:
  • "When the narrator, a naive man-child in the tradition of Candide, is forced to go to Belarus to try to achieve similar results for their forgotten killing fields, the humour turns so treacly black it almost chokes you." - Jane Housham, The Guardian

  • "Blending fact and fiction, Topol's darkly comic novel, lucidly translated by Alex Zucker, is a hard-hitting exploration of two nations bedevilled by past horrors." - Lucy Popescu, The Independent

  • "Verharmlosung ist keine notwendige Folge, das zeigt Jáchym Topols atemberaubender Roman Die Teufelswerkstatt. (...) Dem Roman über die Irrwege und Konflikte der Gedächtniskultur gelingt dabei, was den offiziellen Wächtern des Gedenkens in Theresienstadt und den weissrussischen Kämpfern um einen Platz an der Sonne des Opfertourismus gar nicht in den Sinn kommt: das Bewusstsein von der Unfassbarkeit des Geschehenen zu erneuern und die Würde der Toten zu wahren." - Jörg Plath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Die Teufelswerkstatt ist trotz des Themas vielleicht der bisher leichteste Roman des tschechischen Schriftstellers, wenn auch nicht sein bester." - Paul Jandl, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The narrator of The Devil's Workshop is a child of Terezín -- Theresienstadt, site of the infamous Nazi concentration camp. His father was one of the liberators of Terezín, rescuing and then marrying the woman who would become the narrator's mother there. It is on the ruins of this site that the fairly simple narrator grew up, familiar with all its nooks and crannies. As he, and some of the visitors to the historic town, know, it wasn't merely a medieval fortress like so many others but rather:

an abyss where the world had been torn apart, a place without mercy or compassion, where anything was possible.
       Lebo, born in the concentration camp itself, and an uncle-figure to the narrator and the others of his generation, takes the lead in trying to make sure what happened here is not forgotten now, decades later. They found a sort of commune, called Comenium, "our international school of healing for students from around the world".
       The past has long been taken essentially for granted at Terezín, as one of those who help build up Comenium tells the narrator:
All over Western Europe there are mass graves from the Second World War, carefully tended and maintained, whereas in Terezín, amazingly, you’ve got Mr Hamáček selling kohlrabi on a slaughter ground, Mrs Bouchal and Mrs Fridrich swearing at their permanently jammed laundry press on the very same spot where trains used to leave for the extermination camps in the East. When you were kids, you played in morgues and felt each other up in bunkers ! It’s a nightmare, you’re all perverted and you don’t even know it. In the West they wouldn’t allow kids to go in places like that. It isn’t allowed here either ! I say. But you don’t give a damn in this country, she objects. Yeah, well, why should I care whether it’s allowed or not, just as long as I don’t get caught, I say.
       Lebo's efforts help change the situation, as Terezín becomes a popular sightseeing destination -- and the success of this leads to the narrator being recruited by someone who wants to do the same in present-day Belarus. Their large-scale atrocities aren't nearly as widely or well-known, those involved in the Belarusian efforts complain -- but it is Belarus that is the 'devil's workshop' of the title:
The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them.
       They want recognition, too:
Terezín is in every encyclopaedia, every textbook, he says, speaking now just to me. We want to be on the world map too. We believe you can help us achieve that.
       And the narrator is meant to help change that, to make Belarus a must-see destination -- albeit for all the wrong reasons:
Guess who had the most casualties during the war ? We did ! Guess who had the most people murdered under communism ? We did. And guess who still has people disappearing, eh ? We do ! That’s the division of labour in the globalized world of today, dammit ! Thailand: sex. Italy: paintings and seaside. Holland: clogs and cheese. Right ? And Belarus ? Horror trip, right ?
       The fact that shortly after the narrator gets to Belarus the local dictator (an unnamed Alexander Lukashenko) declares martial law and suggests: "Not everything associated with Hitler was bad" hammers home the fact that things are far from ideal even in contemporary Belarus. The narrator, not surprisingly, finds himself in way over his head, the forces of history rather more than he -- who would rather be herding his goats anyway -- can deal with. Not to mention that it's damn cold in Belarus when he gets there. One lesson that he learnt from Uncle Lebo and what history he knows is that: "When somebody says they want to kill you, believe them" -- though that still leaves the problem of where to (try to) flee to.
       The use of a simple and fairly naïve narrator allows Topol to present his story relatively neutrally. Even the narrator understands how bad a great deal of what he is confronted with is, but he's not the kind who can really give voice to moral outrage. He does repeat what others say, often at some length, allowing for some reflection on some of this sheer evil -- as, for example, the daughter of one Wehrmacht captain responsible for some of what the narrator comes to hear about tells him:
Once you realize just how much horror is possible, and the fact settles into your brain, you’re a different person from everyone else. It stays inside you. Like a wound that won’t heal. I used to wonder how my friends could go to school and play ping-pong and go on dates. We need to scream, we need to stop the evil. I was obsessed. Wherever I looked I saw evil. In everything.
       However, the narrator -- concerned also about his own survival -- can't concern himself too deeply with the nature of the past, and guilt, and shame. It makes for a reasonably effective narrative, but also a somewhat limited one. The narrator's simplicity also makes for a choppy narrative with little embellishment. There are nice small observations throughout -- like them numbering the souvenir T-shirts they sell with indelible ink, "so every tourist who came to Terezín would know what number visitor they were" -- but the story also never goes into any sustained depth. In a way it feels like Topol is just skimming the dark subject matter, afraid of immersing himself or his readers in the true horror. But he may be right that this scale of evil can not be apprehended, the narrator's simpleminded understanding only a small degree different from our own which is, ultimately, equally overwhelmed by the monstrosity of it.
       The question of how to deal with these horrors that have been perpetrated, the antithesis of civilization, is reasonably well-presented, with the grounds of Terezín on the one hand treated by local children like any other playground ("you played in morgues and felt each other up in bunkers") and then becoming a not-quite-memorial as a tourist attraction-cum-pilgrimage site; in Belarus, meanwhile, they're just as happy to get the bulldozers out in an effort to literally obliterate the past (easier said than done, it turns out) -- not that too many seemed too concerned about it in the first place.
       It is difficult to address mankind's depravity and the mass-killing of so many adequately, or to set an adequate testament to the victims, whether at the sites themselves, or in a novel about these. Topol's effort is fine, but seems even in its presentation -- jerking forward, not describing many of the events in much detail -- to know it can only fall short of true insight and understanding.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2013

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The Devil's Workshop: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Czech author Jáchym Topol was born in 1962.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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