Jáchym Topol (b. 1962), like most Czech authors of his generation, wrote poetry for years before turning to prose. His first two collections of poems were both published in samizdat (i.e., unofficially and illegally), in 1985 and 1988. The poems here come from V úterý bude válka (Tuesday Will Be War, 1992), his first ‘aboveground’ appearance in print and his last poetry outing prior to his prose debut, Výlet k nádražní hale (A Trip to the Train Station, 1993). Topol’s verse, with its lack of rhyme and meter, may remind English speakers of the Beats. Topol himself, however, cites his chief poetic influences as Ivan Jirous, aka ‘Magor’, poet, essayist, and guru of the Czech underground in the 1970s and 1980s; Egon Bondy, a metaphysical philosopher and surrealist poet whose verses served as lyrics for the first album by the Plastic People of the Universe; and Jiří Kolář of Skupina 42 (Group 42), a 1940s association of Czech avant-garde poets and painters inspired by the city and the industrial periphery. Thematically, the three selections here reflect several of Topol’s abiding interests and influences, visible in his novels as well: Native Americans, World War II atrocities, and the spy and adventure stories he devoured as a boy.
For as long as I remember I’ve longed
for a weapon
first it was a bow and arrows
the cavaliers dropped like flies
I rooted for the Navajos
then Jack London in a knit cap with a jack-knife
a poor little boy on a ship with wolves
I didn’t get mixed up in a real war till later
but just a paper war
after that I started to carry a knife
and arm myself
with anonymous letters
together with Petr P.
dodging spears in the woods
on Radar Mountain . . . and they didn’t get us.
90 for a machete, 120 for tear gas
and there’s danger everywhere, in everything.
I bought my wife the gas
I want to get her a handgun
she objects, she says: ‘where would we end up
if everyone thought like that?’ and
‘you’d just be spreading more evil in the world.’
We wait for the rapist
on long nights planning how he’ll cross the park
come up from behind on the left
and what about those bastards in the subway
today I saw two heard them say:
‘where’d you cut him?’
‘on his fuckin’ face’ swinging bats
their legs barely reached the ground
they weren’t heiling at the moment
I wished they were dead
‘you’ll never kill them all anyway’ ‘and if
you did you’d be like them’ she says. I force her
to carry the gas at least
but it’s just an excuse for me
not have to wait for her when she comes back from church in the evening
and she’s wrong
I wouldn’t be like them
I’d be alive.
An unintelligible mush streams from the ether
I’ll be here a while still
not moving a muscle like that time at the start of the week
like that time the planes flew over me and my wife
right after lunch though we declare war on Hungary
on Burma the UN the Kurds in lice-infested camps
and on everybody else
we’ll smash their faces in chop
our allies to pieces feed them to the pigs
up against the light we’ll cook them
take away their passports
I just coolly bounced the sun around on the hilt of my knife
and tossed my medals into the basket under the dirty laundry
you could get souvenirs from the new concentration camps
as casually as a trip to the islands to Mars
and I was on the run always alert always vigilant
and then like a gentleman I took the train
there were dragons and lions in the sky and all of it was modern
I worked hard for my papers for some certainty
in this rapidly spinning universe
but now I’m kind of scared there’ll be nothing to eat behind the wires
and I need something daily at least two servings of brain
from the old lady who takes your money to take a shit
because I also have to have my love that woman with me.
I Walked Through the Trees
When they killed Adolf Hitler in the basement
I wasn’t there
I don’t have to trust anyone
not him or any of the rest.
The Master of the World covered him with a skin stripped from a stag
and showed him the maps
there were people standing all over the streets and the squares
and in between the chiming of the bells they said: ‘we need you.’
Heroes wove their stories there were laws here and there
you could live and you could die a thousand deaths.
I had a little stomach ache on the hill above the village
a plate of spinach and beef cost 17.80 that summer
but I was at lunch so I missed it. I liked watching the sparks
above the tracks and across from me sat a small skinny blonde
with big breasts. Two drunks were brawling on the embankment
one kneed the other in the ribs and jabbed his fingers in his eyes
and the cry from a clenched throat turned into moans
in the time it took me to walk past.
I walked through the trees.
I slept on the cliff in the daytime and left at night
and when the train came to a stop
a voice on the loudspeaker said the name of some place told me where we were.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2014 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Alex Zucker (b. 1964) is currently translating novels by Arnošt Lustig, Tomáš Zmeškal, Heda Margolius Kovály, Josef Jedlička, and Petra Hůlová. His translation of Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop (Portobello Books, 2013) received an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.