Itʼs Just Pourin Outta Me: On Jáchym Topol’s “A Sensitive Person”

By Cory OldweilerFebruary 17, 2023

Itʼs Just Pourin Outta Me: On Jáchym Topol’s “A Sensitive Person”

A Sensitive Person by Jáchym Topol

IF YOU’RE A FAN of contemporary Czech fiction but don’t actually speak Czech, it’s likely that you already know the name Alex Zucker. While Zucker has translated pretty much anything you can imagine being translated, from plays to children’s books, poetry, essays, song lyrics, and even an opera, it’s his work with post-1989 Czech fiction that is particularly remarkable. His translations have won awards in both the United States and the United Kingdom, but what’s more valuable to readers is the volume and diversity of his work.

Of the nearly 70 English-language versions of novels, novellas, or story collections initially published in the Czech Republic after the Velvet Revolution, Zucker has translated 14 of them, representing seven different authors: four women and three men. (He has also translated novels from three other Czech authors, two of which were originally published in the 1960s, the other in 1985.) In the past two years, Zucker’s translations of Bianca Bellová’s The Lake (originally published in Czech in 2016) and Petra Hůlová’s The Movement (originally published in Czech in 2019) showcased exciting and unique approaches to writing about, among other things, the accelerating climate crisis and the rampant persistence of the patriarchy — themes that we see addressed all too often from the perspective of US authors but that affect people worldwide and hence should be considered and experienced from a wider range of perspectives.

The Czech author whose work Zucker has translated more than any other, however, is Jáchym Topol, whose latest novel, A Sensitive Person, is out now in Zucker’s translation, his fifth of Topol’s work. When A Sensitive Person was originally published in Czech in 2017, Topol received the Czech State Award for Literature in recognition of both the novel and his career as a whole. Thematically, the story is sweeping, dealing directly with consequential and timely events, including the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe in response to the 2015 refugee crisis, and the (now fully realized) threat of further Russian aggression in Ukraine after its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued backing of separatists in Donbas. But A Sensitive Person also addresses issues that have concerned Topol for decades, both in his life and in his fiction, such as the increasing commercialization of society, the unchecked spread of tourism, the struggle to preserve the environment, the lure of the past, and the precarity of the future.

It would be folly to try and unravel here the entire plot of this frenetic road novel full of unexpected obstacles and encounters, but here is the gist. In 2016, amid the 400th anniversary celebrations of Shakespeare’s death, Tab, his wife Soňa, and their twin sons travel the European festival circuit, as they have done for years. The fiftysomething Tab made a name for himself as an itinerant actor, which is how he and the younger Soňa met. Though they were of different generations, they hit it off, and during a succeeding tour, she gave birth to the twins under a bridge in rural France. Soňa struggles with drug addiction, and possibly for that reason, possibly for some other unspecified one, their sons are developmentally stunted and dramatically different, so much so that it is hard to see them as twins. One doesn’t speak, though he runs around, interacts with adults, tends to his brother at times, oars a boat, and even gets a successful hand job from a prostitute. His brother wears a diaper, has never cried, and has to be carried everywhere — at first, he’s in a car seat, but at one point, he ends up in a sack. Several characters ask what’s wrong with both boys, but Tab never answers.

Instead of finding work, the family finds increasing intolerance and nationalism due to the refugee crisis. In Budapest, they run into Tab’s pro-Russian mercenary brother Ivan and his lethal assassin chauffeur, who fly them off to the far reaches of Russian-occupied Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, where they encounter Putin pal Gérard Depardieu, who is “cavort[ing] about the glade in a youthful and statuesque manner, resembling the fauns of myth.” After potentially murdering his own father, Tab and his family steal the French actor’s Mercedes and escape to the riparian countryside around Poříčí nad Sázavou, about 16 miles southeast of Prague, where both he and Soňa (and Topol himself) have roots. There, they interact with an extensive group of interconnected characters, including several elderly men who, in 1968, pushed a Russian tank off of a bridge into the Sázava River, several young men who work in a junkyard-cum-chop-shop, a few prostitutes who work at a brothel run by Tab’s half(?)-sister, and various other assorted nomads and hermits, some of whom feel as if they’ve stepped out of the libretto of Dvořák’s Rusalka, like Scales the fisherman, and others who seem as if they’re extras in a Fellini film, like the cemetery vandals wearing leather jumpsuits and animal masks.

To have a translator with Zucker’s experience and expertise working with such a complex and at times distractingly off-the-wall novel is a real gift to readers (and critics). The benefits are apparent from the jump in A Sensitive Person, which opens with a rich and informative translator’s note that would be especially helpful for readers who are unfamiliar with Czech history or current events. Much of the dialogue that appears throughout the novel reads as dialect, but Zucker explains that it is actually “colloquial […] and spoken […] Czech, as opposed to the standard written […] register.” It is presumably this prevalence of colloquial speech that makes Tab’s brother, already an abrasive presence, even more intentionally tedious when he talks, as in “I long time from motherland gone. In native speech I have gaps. I plan visit spas in your country!” and, later, “Munich fascist no will bother you now!”

Zucker also points out Topol’s tendency to juxtapose “beauty and brutality,” particularly with respect to the natural world. There are numerous examples, but one of my favorites comes just before several characters discover the vandalism and neglect that have ravaged old riverside cabins where their friends had once stayed:

In the bends of the Sázava, sliced into the regularly inundated woodland shores, the dreamy tramps built their preapocalyptic communities by the light of nothing but campfires and the heavens and, apart from raucous potlatches held to the accompaniment of their own barbaric music, in deep sylvan silence, ruffled only occasionally by the smack of a beaver’s tail or the squeak of a female muskrat being covered by a male.

Even more helpful in thinking about the overall force of the novel, Zucker provides salient biographical information about Topol, including the devastating fact that his “entire immediate family — younger brother, father, and mother — passed away in the space of just three years while he was writing this book.” Both his brother’s and his father’s deaths were “long, hard, and painful.”

Even in our era of rampant autofiction, it’s unwise to presume that the unfiltered voice of the author is speaking through one of their fictional creations, but the relationship between Tab and Topol is particularly interesting, especially in light of the losses Zucker mentions. Tab has several biographical details in common with Topol, such as the fact that he didn’t want to go into the army so he went instead to “the nuthouse,” and that he was jailed for “resistance poetry” under the “Bolshies.” But more resonant even than any specific shared experience is when, late in the novel, Tab says, “My family and me got on this crazy ride and I just can’t make it stop,” soon adding, “The things I’ve been through, I’m fuckin pissed. It’s just pourin outta me. I gotta write.” It’s hard to read those last three sentences without hearing Topol’s own barbaric yawp.

These emotions inform several plot points, such as the fact that old man Bašta wants to start a hospice that is more responsive to patient desires. They also color two critical conversations that Tab has late in the novel, one with an elderly man named Broněk and the other with his old teacher, Lojda. Both men offer Tab compassion and consolation in their own ways, but both have given up on life, like all the novel’s elderly characters, and are ready to die on their own terms. Broněk informs Tab,

In the end, everyone’s broken, they die alone and in sickness. Nothing lasts — friendship, love, it all fades away, and in the end there’s nothin left but dying and pain. And when you’re in pain, you don’t even remember the good times, as they say. And if you do? Then all the worse for you. There’s no point in goin through it all again. You know that yourself.

Lojda is equally resigned, but in a different way, dreading the future while reflecting almost wistfully on the past:

The Russians are like nature, they can’t be stopped. […] Afghanistan, Chechnya, that’s all forgotten now. The day before yesterday Georgia, yesterday the Crimea, today Syria, tomorrow Ukraine, after that the Baltics, Poland, the usual. Next thing you know they’ll be back here, and Cossack horses’ll drink from the Sázava again. Who’s gonna stop em? […]

Sure, protest to your heart’s content. No one’s gonna lock you up for some silly samizdat anymore. […] That was paradise back then. Slaps and cages for a few little poems? Shit, talk about your twentieth-century romanticism.

Tab pushes back against both men and seems determined to endure, though it’s hard for him, or the reader, to completely disregard the older generation’s point of view. During the past five years or so, I, too, have found myself at times reflecting rosily on the 20th century of my admittedly privileged suburban youth. Sure, we had a cooling Cold War and the inane war on drugs, and society was backwards as hell in many ways, but we didn’t have a pandemic and we didn’t have continual mass shootings and we didn’t have a tangibly nonfunctional federal government where one party honestly doesn’t appear to care about anything anymore, including democracy.

In A Sensitive Person, Topol is clearly concerned about what comes next. The dust of distant revolutions has settled in Eastern and Central Europe, incorporated into the foundations of capitalist edifices. More and more businesses are built solely to benefit fewer and fewer people, to perpetuate the prosperity of the prosperous, to satisfy the expectations of the expectant vacationer. The unchecked aggressor to the east remains, piloted by a murderous, delusional ideologue. The degradation of the natural world is shrugged off with rhetoric. What kind of Czech Republic, and indeed what kind of planet, is going to be around in the next 20 years? In the next five? And will either of those places be worth living in? I wonder these things too, and thanks to the often thankless work of translators like Zucker, I’m able to inform my considerations with the perspectives of other sensitive people.


Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.

LARB Contributor

Cory Oldweiler writes about translated fiction and nonfiction for several publications, including Words Without Borders and the Southwest Review. His criticism also appears in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Star Tribune, among other outlets. He wrote the 2015 novel Testimony of the Senses, inspired by the symphonies of Gustav Mahler.


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