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from the July 2009 issue

from “I Can’t Stand Still”: An Interview with Jáchym Topol

Weiss: What was your first time out of the country?

Topol: My first time was in East Germany with my mom. She took my brother and me to the seaside there. That change—all of a sudden by the sea in the GDR instead of in Poříčí1 as usual—happened thanks to my mother's coworkers. Apparently they explained that you're supposed to go away on vacation with your kids. That ended the era of staying at home or with our grandma. Vacations at home equaled reading. Walks and reading and some food here and there. In Germany my brother and me got caught in a storm on a lake where we swam. Even though we weren't supposed to be able to rent a boat, we somehow managed to take one out, and suddenly we were living a scene from one of our favorite adventure books—ropes of water slashing down, branches flying all over the place, us clinging to the oars convinced that anything could happen. Meanwhile our mom of course was panicking on shore.

Weiss: How old were you then?

Topol: I'm not sure exactly, but we couldn't have been too big, because I remember teaching my brother the sentence "Ich bin der hemeroid." I told him it meant "What time is it?" That was an interesting sight—Filip stopping Germans and asking them what time it was. [laughs] For us it was incredibly exotic that all of the people around us were actually German. We normally never went anywhere, and all of a sudden everyone was speaking a different language. A whole street full of Germans. It was unbelievable. And there were other foreign things that fascinated me, too. I collected tram tickets like a maniac. I had pockets full of yogurt lids. The best thing was a fountain pen that said Dresden on it. I brought it to school with me to show off when we got back. Also it reminded me of my mom's memories from the war—when they bombed Dresden you could see the light from Prague, she said, and in May 1945 she was looking out her window and saw two freed concentration camp prisoners clubbing a Wehrmacht soldier with clogs on the street. Germans were actually pretty scary for a little boy. It's no wonder, after seeing all those movies where the brave Czech partisan mows down sixty SS monsters at once. In his novel The Innocent, Ian McEwan describes the arrival of the main character in Berlin in the fifties. He gets a little drunk and he's listening to the language even though he doesn't understand a word of German, and he thinks he's hearing all these secret messages about mass graves. A typical example of the indoctrination of postwar propaganda.

Weiss: Most Czech families came home from their trips to the GDR loaded down with salamis, chocolates, shoes, and baby equipment. Czech daytrippers in the towns along the border were famous for that. What about the Topols?

Topol: We couldn't afford it. Two days before the end of vacation we'd already spent all our money and eaten all our supplies. We'd finish out our stay in poverty and hunger in a tiny little cottage. [laughs] That little cottage was also where I wrote my first lyrics for Psí vojáci. Heavily influenced by Pavel Zajíček. They didn't play the songs till years later.2 Actually I forgot to say that this whole time we're talking about I was constantly writing something.

Weiss: What were your first impressions of the feared customs officers? Were you afraid?

Topol: Yeah. And I still get jumpy around them even now. They make me nervous, I get scared. They can tell I'm nervous, too—that's what they're trained to do—and they almost always search me. It just keeps going, round and round.

Weiss: You must have had some interesting experiences at the borders, what with your long hair and all. Did you and the crew ever go tramping outside the country?

Topol: Our main goals were Poland and Hungary. We'd hitch across the border in packs of six to nine. Almost broke, living off other people's scraps, eating what they left on their plates. And the borders? Our border guards were stupid idiots. They wouldn't let you cross if they didn't like how you looked. If your hair was longer than in your passport, say. You'd always have to use some kind of trick to get through.

Weiss: Did you go with any goal, or was it just for the hell of it?

Topol: Any sea was a huge magnet for us. To get to the sea—what better goal could an inlander have? I'm still drawn to the sea very intensely to this day. The damp, the sand in the air. The smell of the water. You hear it. I start shaking all over. Pure euphoria. I'll never forget how I found the sea on my trip to Romania. This was after the nuthouse and I had an urge to get out on my own.3 I rambled through the Romanian mountains with a backpack, trying to find the sea. The happiness I felt when one of the locals pointed his hand and I saw it in the distance. I don't know where it was, but my stay on Romania's beaches was colored by crawling through bunkers. I wandered along the sea for a few days, through an area sprinkled with bunkers poking up out of the sand everywhere, the sea lapping against them, it was like something out of a movie. I didn't find out that it was a military zone till the end, when they ceremoniously arrested me. But the soldiers treated me very nicely in jail and brought all sorts of tomatoes and hot and sweet peppers to trade me for my cigarettes. It was a good jail, I was there by myself, the concrete walls dripping water from the heat, colorful lizards crawling all over the place. Then after a couple days the soldiers made a big show of bringing me to the nearest station and putting me on the train. I had a compartment to myself and the conductor kept an eye out to make sure nobody talked to me. I never bought a ticket in Romania, I'd just ride on my passport, as a foreigner.

But the bunkers … I liked sleeping in those concrete huts, medieval castles adapted for rocket attacks. The insides were overgrown with layers of colorful shells, different types of mushrooms, the concrete rubbed away from the impact of the water, it looked like the world after a catastrophe, except for me and the little transparent fish and all sorts of crustaceans, there was nobody else around. The strange thing was that I woke up every morning almost exactly when the sun came up, as its lower edge touched the water on the horizon in the distance. There would be seagulls and other birds that I don't know sailing over the water. One day I fell back asleep and got woken up by a sloshing noise. It was water. I slept high up in a recess of the bunker, and I woke in total darkness and my feet were in the sea. The tide had come in. The bunker was flooded, I couldn't see out the tunnel I'd come in through, and the water was bubbling higher. Okay, see you later, I said to myself, and I didn't even mind that I was probably going to end up drowned in a bunker, like the throat of some giant womb. I managed to find my last-aid kit, fished out a match cleverly wrapped in plastic, and lit a candle. That was, in all horror, such a new situation that if all of a sudden a spewing white whale had come floating in, or a raft with a thousand-man crew of frantically paddling Gullivers, I wouldn't even have yawned. But I told myself I'd try and find the tunnel. I left my backpack in the nook, stripped naked, slipped into the cold water, dove down, and of course in a single breath without even opening my eyes I found the tunnel, and I was just about to start suffocating when I got to the surface and everything was like it used to be. The sun warm and bright in the distance touching the water, the seagulls squawking. I waited for the tide to go out and went and got my pack. It was so incredible and unlikely that even though the whole thing lasted just a few seconds, in my mind it had expanded to practically hours. It was a second birth, the bunker and nature had given birth to me. So I kept walking and didn't crawl into any more fortresses after that. Anyway they would've locked me up, I already talked about that. From then on, I went to Poland instead.

Weiss: To Poland, just like that?

Topol: Częstochowa was a place I went a lot. The Polish hippies, and in general so-called troubled youth from all of Eastern Europe, would get together regularly on the site of the Black Madonna.4 Sort of an East European Woodstock, without the music, but under the Virgin Mary's protection. We went there mainly to soak up the atmosphere and check out the hardcore Polish longhairs. They almost all shot drugs. The Polish junkies' quests for poppy were legendary. Kompot was their national drug. Here, Pervitin; in Poland, kompot.5 I didn't like drugs, they didn't interest me. I was happy just drinking wine and enjoying all the freedom in the middle of communism. Then all of us together, with great irony, would watch the pilgrimage of the polyester Catholics to the mother of Poland. The hubbub around the stalls with the holy pictures and medallions of the Pope. In Częstochowa both camps existed peacefully side by side. It was an atmosphere of nonstop celebration.

Weiss: Eight or nine longhairs hitching around—as I recall, it was kind of like a stage race.

Topol: We would split into groups of two or three and set a meeting place, say, two hundred kilometers away. The whole way we'd be gathering contacts nonstop. Information exchange between tramps was extremely fast and efficient. Which train stations you could sleep at, which cops were the worst, where the party was in the next town a hundred kilometers away, where you could swipe some corn, which fire on which beach we would meet at again in a year, and so on. Some of those contacts have lasted to this day. I remember a fire by the sea in Poland, with two Hungarians, two Czechs, two Poles, and an East German sitting around trying to prove who had the nastiest regime. Our trump card against the Poles was the work requirement. They didn't have that in Poland, and the young Poles couldn't understand what parasitism was and that you could be thrown in jail for not doing anything. Suddenly all their domestic terrors somehow seemed ridiculous. [laughs] You could clearly see the different mentalities. The Poles were the most rebellious. "They cut your hair in high school? We'd go right on strike!" The Germans were sort of timid.

Weiss: The GDR, Poland, Hungary, Romania. What about Bulgaria? Don't tell me you guys never went to Varna or Sozopol.

Topol: Those were tremendous trips. Getting chased by Bulgarian cops shouting "Khipis!" at us. Wandering along the seaside. Broke, as usual. Sleeping in sandy graves, pits carved out by the wind. Eating shellfish. I remember dreams full of colorful fish with saddles on them like horses. We found some nice rocks in the sea and painted them and wrote Latin phrases on them, provocative stuff like deus est. Then at the markets we traded them for stalks and pumpkins and turnips. In the villages we went through we saw unimaginable poverty. Cottages with dirt floors. Farming and people's relationships to the land were disrupted by communism. We were drawn to the fishermen by the seaside in Poland. That was unknown to us. We all dreamed that one day we'd be hired on a fishing boat. It never happened. It was enough for the fishermen to notice us. Reeds swaying in the wind. They'd laugh and leave us on shore.

Weiss: You mostly talk about traveling with friends. The one exception being Romania, where you went by yourself. That seems pretty unusual to me for the time, not to mention extremely dangerous.

Topol: Maybe it was dangerous, but like I said, I wanted some time alone after being in the nuthouse. When I got to the Transylvanian mountains I made up for my strong need for woods and free movement. I headed straight for some nice deep forests. I got lost. I heard wolves howl at night, or wild dogs, which are even worse. A couple times I climbed up a tree like Hanzel, so at least I could see which direction I should go. And I had a strange encounter with two German girls. Walking along, eyes swollen, knees scraped. They told me they were students of ethnography and had stopped in a Gypsy village. They couldn't think of anything smarter to do than start their research there. One got raped, both got robbed, and then they chased them out. I remembered this encounter often when I went back to school to study ethnography and I'd be sitting around talking with my sweet fellow students. You go out as an ambassador from the world of leather jackets, raincoats, libraries, and computers, to study the oppressed with a pure heart. And what do they do but kick your ass! Then I wandered through the woods with the girls for a couple days. All of a sudden I had to wake up from my forest solitude of hallucinations and writing tons of poems, which I ended up losing, and take care of two girls who were at the end of their rope. Unbelievable. Lost in the wild! At the end of the world. The difference between Romania and the Amazon was negligible at that point. No one would ever have found us if we'd died there. I had to keep under control not only my constant panic and occasional hysteria but also theirs. Finally we came to a train station. We got on a train, on a car with a family of about a hundred Gypsies with their grandmother in a coffin. The men had old-fashioned bowlers on, greasy ponytails sticking out from underneath, dressed in suits, the women in different colored cloths, and they all took turns sobbing at the coffin. Hordes of kids running around. Our ethnographic patrol was greeted with silence. But soon it broke, and we snacked on tomatoes, cucumbers, salted hens, and circling bottles of liquor, meanwhile engaging in heated conversation. We rode in that car for two long, longer than long days. It was truly detailed field research. The last few hours all we did was sing. There was no running water on board, but fortunately, when we came to the seaside region, men started popping up selling bottles of wine all over the place. The girls sang in German, moved to tears every now and then, apparently by the enormous spectrum of ethnographic possibilities. I bellowed out Czech pub songs, and the locals sang sentimental ballads to their grandmother and told us all sorts of stories that we didn't understand a word of. We staggered off the train supplied with enough food to last about half a year with reasonable management. We staggered down through the salty air to the seaside. Came to a beach. The first naked people we saw of course were Germans. The girls raced toward them with joy and I, their rescuer, was once again alone and headed back into the woods. A hen's head dangling from my backpack. *** 1 Poříčí nad Sázavou, a village about twenty-five" miles southeast of Prague where Topol often spent summers as a child. 2 Psí vojáci (Dog Soldiers) is a famous rock band led by Filip Topol, Jáchym's younger brother. Pavel Zajíček wrote lyrics and sang for a well-known group called DG 307. 3" Just before finishing high school, Topol spent about four months in an insane asylum, in order to avoid military service. 4 The Black Madonna of Częstochowa is Poland's holiest relic. An image of the Black Madonna was featured on the cover of Topol's first novel, Sestra (1994). 5 Pervitin, a trade name for methamphetamine, has long been extremely popular among Czechs. Kompot—meaning compote, stewed fruit, preserves—is used here as a Polish slang term for heroin.

From Nemůóu se zastavit [I Can't Stand Still] (Prague: Portál, 2000), a book-length interview with Jáchym Topol. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Alex Zucker. All rights reserved. ***

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