The handy thing about having a public library with a shelf featuring the latest fiction from international authors is it makes it really easy to find books that count towards reading challenges like the European Reading Challenge, the Books in Translation Reading Challenge, Middle East Reading Challenge and the Global Reading Challenge. One such piece of fiction I happened to stumble upon during a recent tour of the international authors shelf was The Devils Workshop by Czech writer Jachym Topol. Being unfamiliar with the author, I hesitated a bit before grabbing the short work of fiction. But after remembering that I needed something set in the Czech Republic for the European Reading Challenge I decided to take a chance on Topol’s novel. Good thing I did because The Devil’s Workshop is pretty good piece of fiction.
Originally published in Czech in 2009 (an English version was finally published this year) The Devil’s Workshop is the first person fictionalized account of a former prison executioner, who after the fall of Communism finds himself herding goats to make living. Later, he falls in with a group of enterprising young idealists and gets swept up in their attempts to turn a former Nazi concentration camp into a tourist destination. Their little experiment of free love, capitalism and Holocaust remembrance soon attracts the attention of the Belarusian government, which ends up sending pair of agents to make contact with those running the project. The result is a darkly comical look at not just the post-Communist world of Eastern Europe but also the horrors of the Second World War’s Eastern Front.
I enjoyed Topol’s novel. I found it dark and funny, as well as edgy and somewhat subversive. But not completely amoral. If a person enjoys the fiction of Ian Banks, Chuck Palahniuk, Tibor Fischer or the Austrian novelist Thomas Glavinic there’s a good chance you’ll like The Devil’s Workshop.