KevinfromCanada’s blog is coming up to its first birthday (Jan. 9) so I thought I would approach the end of year one and start of year two with reviews of books from some authors who have links to the initial 12 months of this blog. Edith Wharton ( The House of Mirth ) and Patrick McCabe (The Holy City ) were the first two authors reviewed here; two shorts novels by Jean Echenoz ( Ravel and Piano ) were among the pleasant discoveries of the year.
Running is Echenoz’s most recent work, just released in translation here in North America. Its central character — indeed, almost only character — is Emil Zatopek, the incredible Czech distance runner who for more than a decade was unbeatable at his chosen distances (he owned nine world records at one point). Awkward in his running form (“absent of form” would perhaps be more accurate), he was almost painful to watch, until he crossed the finish line first, took his victory lap and celebrated yet another triumph.
A digression: The 1988 Winter Olympics took place in Calgary. As the newly-appointed city editor of the Calgary Herald in 1976, one of my first tasks was to select the reporter who would cover Calgary’s attempt to get the rights to bid for the Games to come to Canada. For the next 12 years, much of my day job was involved with Olympic coverage. There is a lot to criticize about the Games (the IOC may be the most pompous organization in the world) but they are a truly special experience to witness firsthand. The 2010 Winter Games are back in Canada, this time in British Columbia, so the chance to read some athletic fiction, from an author whom I admire, sent me into this volume with high hopes.
Zatopek may have been born to be a world champion but it took him a while to discover it. In post-WWII Czechoslovakia, a job was what he needed and he found it in the Bata shoe factory (another Canadian connection there, since the Batas lived in Canada). The new nation is searching for an identity, competitions are important to companies like Bata and Emil, the non-athlete, finds himself almost forced to take part:
Against all odds, he soon starts to enjoy himself. He doesn’t say anything but seems to be getting into it; after a few weeks he even begins running on his own, just for the pleasure of it, which astonishes him and he prefers not to mention this to anyone. After nightfall, when no one can see him, he does the round trip between the factory and the forest as fast as he can. Although he doesn’t breathe a word about this, the others catch on in the end, pressure him again, and, too nice a guy to resist for long, he gives in since it means so much to them.
Well, nice as he is, he begins to realize that he likes a good fight: the first few times they let him loose on a track, he goes for all he’s worth and easily wins two races, of 1500 and 3000 meters. People congratulate him, encourage him, reward him with an apple and a slice of bread and butter, tell him to come back again and he goes back again and starts training in the stadium, at first for a laugh but not for long.
It is at this point that Echenoz begins to develop a parallel story. When Zatopek has his original successes, the Germans are still in control — they will soon be replaced and the Czechs will be under the thumb of new Soviet masters. Emil cares nothing for politics, only running, but the political masters need heroes and he, as a runner, needs support. From here on in, this novella (126 pages in my edition from The New Press) will address both those concerns.
The global concerns echo the Cold War, and while there are destructive weapons on both sides, the “action” of the Cold War often tends to be played out through athletic contests. At the Olympics in London, Emil is to face Heino, a Finn from the “other side”:
Emil is the favorite, of course, but there’s still Heino, who is there saying nothing yet thinking nonetheless. The man of the deep forests has a thirst for vengeance and no desire to let Emil have the last word. So Emil and Dr. Knienicky, whom he has for once allowed to advise him, come up with a race strategy. It’s really rather simple. When the doctor, sitting in the stands, feels it’s time for Emil to accelerate, he will just wave a red jersey, Emil’s spare: he runs only in red, representing his country at athletic meets exclusively in the color of the proletarian revolution, although whether by choice or by fiat is anyone’s guess.
Things get more complicated for Emil, but he, a runner, remains removed. He, and his reputation, are important to the state — he is just a runner and, while promotions in the military have their own rewards, he doesn’t care that much about the state. Until the arrival of the Prague Spring.
And I will stop this review right there. If you have read Echenoz and like him, this is an entirely worthwhile book. In his spare, concise style he takes global and personal conflicts, elevates and compresses them, and does a superb job of it. If you have not read Echenoz, I would not start here — both Ravel and Piano are better entry points to this author’s work. Having said that, I want to put in a final recommendation for Echenoz. He is an author who understands and communicates the pressures of the time, but he does it through the exploration of individual characters. Don’t start your Echenoz reading here, but don’t pass it by either.