Sunday 30 December 2012

Not a biography

Echenoz's book about Emil Zapotek is called Courir in French and Running in English, with the subtitle Un roman - A novel, published in 2008 by Editions de Minuit, Linda Coverdale's translation appearing a year later under the imprint of The New Press.

It is the story of Zapotek and of Czechslovakia and its people, during a difficult time. Emil Zapotek loved running and loved his country. He was the fastest man on earth (long-distance) for some 6 years or so, winning many Olympic medals. Gentle Emil often smiled and found it hard to say No to people's requests. He saw himself as an ordinary man and remained matter of fact and humble despite his success, becoming a most loved figure in Czechoslovakia.

Like most people of my generation, I recognise the name Zapotek from my childhood. He was world-famous. The Czechs seem to have the rare ability to produce wonderful people, and to recognise and honour them. I am thinking of another Czech hero, Vaclav Havel. Apart from that, I am not very knowledgeable about the Czechs.

When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in the 50s, and put a stop to the Prague Spring (this was Dubcek's time), Zapotek, then in his forties, spoke up at a protest rally and said that the URSS should be boycotted at the Olympics in Mexico (I remember that happening). He was stripped of his rank as a colonel in the Czech army, lost his job, was banished from Prague and sent to work in a dangerously radioactive mine. After he had been there for some six years, the apparatchiks thought it would be a good idea to humiliate him by giving him work as a garbage collector in Prague. 

The crew he was assigned to refused to let him handle the garbage, and he simply ran behind the truck, while the people hung out of the windows applauding him and bringing the garbage to the truck themselves, so that in the end the authorities recognised their failure and made him a filing clerk somewhere obscure...He had a loving wife called Dana. During the time in the mine he managed to escape three times to visit her in Prague.

This is a story about a person who existed, yet Echenoz describes it as a novel. There is no reference to his sources. He has chosen to leave out many things. There are no years/dates, no listing of the times Zapotek achieved, no clear description of his training method - we learn that the next person to finish a race took 20 minutes longer, or that he was the first man to run 20 km in under an hour...Echenoz calls him Emil - the name Zapotek only occurs 3 times in the entire book, the first time on p. 80 (out of 122). The other names are his wife's, those of a few other runners, and of a couple of statesmen. Also: no quotation marks for speech. There isn't much speech anyway.
The story unfolds chronologically, with few flashbacks. The language tends to be calm, moderate. The words everybody, everywhere are used often - the word everyman seems to be waiting in the wings. This is how good an ordinary human being can be.

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