Born on this day in 1962: One of the Czech Republic's greatest living authors

Jáchym Topol's acclaim has reached beyond Czechia as the voice of a country coming to terms with its newfound freedom.

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff Published on 04.08.2022 16:26:00 (updated on 04.08.2022) Reading time: 3 minutes

Jáchym Topol is arguably the most important representative of the postmodern trend in post-1989 Czech prose, the Czech Literary Portal writes.

Born on this day in 1962 in Prague, the poet, prose writer, journalist, and musician, who has published books in over 25 languages, is celebrating his 60th birthday today.

Topol's writing career began in the late '70s and early '80s with lyrics for the rock band Psí vojáci, led by his younger brother, Filip. In 1982, he co-founded the samizdat magazine Violit, and in 1985 Revolver Revue, a samizdat publication featuring modern Czech writing.

As a signatory of the Charter 77 human rights declaration, Topol spent short periods in prison for his dissident activities, which included smuggling Czech literature into Poland. The son of a translator and dissident, the author was banned from attending university and in the years following high school worked on construction sites and delivering coal.

Topol took inspiration from the poets of the Beat Generation, Jack London, and Czech poet Ivan Martin Jirous. Václav Havel was an early supporter of his work.

Topol told the Memory of Nations Project: 'Václav Havel was a person who presented himself as a respectable, law-abiding citizen. He wasn't like me, scared as a rabbit in my conspiracy. When I came to his place, bugged all around, someone was just calling and I can hear him to this day saying: 'Petruška, Jáchym is here! He brought Revolver Revue!'"

Topol's breakthrough book “Sestra” (Sister City Silver) would become one of the defining prose works of the post-revolutionary period, using experimental language to detail the post-1989 social transition.

The 1994 work depicting a young protagonist who is both a businessman and a drifter won the Egon Hostovský Prize as the best Czech book of the year. It captured the sense of dislocation that followed the Czechs’ newfound freedom in 1989. 

Featuring a memorable scene of a nightmarish Eastern European flea market, and satirical jibes at the literary world, the novels also sparked a new movement in literature; writers began producing rebellious, brutally honest accounts of daily life in Czechoslovakia. The book is on the list of 1001 Books to Read Before you Die.

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Jáchym Topol: Notable novels

  • Sestra (Sister City Silver, 1994) A young man drifts through post-revolutionary Prague.
  • Anděl (Angel Station, 1995) A look at the underworld in Prague's Smíchov district.
  • Noční práce (Night Work, 2001) Chronicles a village community in 1968.
  • Kloktat dehet (Gargling Tar, 2005) Presents an alternative history of post-1948 Czechoslovakia.
  • Chladnou zemí (The Devil’s Workshop, 2009) Covers the territory of the most recent European past.
  • Citlivý člověk (A Sensitive Person, 2017) A prescient reflection on Europe, populism, and the Russian threat.

Topol has won numerous literary prizes, including the Tom Stoppard Prize, the Vilenica Prize for contributions to Central European literature, the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, and the Czech State Award for Literature for and for lifetime achievement. "The Devil’s Workshop," translated to English by Alex Zucker, won the 2013 English PEN Award for Writing in Translation.

His acclaim has reached beyond the borders of Czechia. Daniel Medin, writing for the Times Literary Supplement describes Topol’s 2009 book "The Devil’s Workshop," which won the 2010 Jaroslav Seifert Prize:

“A miracle of compression, its scope greater than ought to be possible for a book of its length. It should help to cement Jáchym Topol’s reputation as one of the most original and compelling European voices at work today."

Image via Granta
Image via Granta

Two of his novels have been immortalized in film: 2000's "Angel Exit," which was based on the novel of the same name for which he co-wrote the screenplay, and 2008's "Sister," which featured music by Topol's band.

Currently program director of the Václav Havel Library, Topol spoke with Czech site Forum 24 on celebrating his 60th birthday.

"I definitely don't feel like that angry old man. I feel more like an old man absorbed and fascinated by the present. By what's happening all around, because it's terribly interesting," he said.

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