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Alex Zucker on Translation

Alex Zucker—

The influence of Topolʼs early days as a poet are evident in his prose. An urgent propulsiveness, the vivid depiction of oppressive atmospheres interspersed with candescent moments of intense poetic imagery, and a broad spectrum of themes (primary among them being the struggle of individuals both with the cruelty of the world and with their own demons), typically related with sarcastic detachment—these are central attributes of Topolʼs poetics, and they are on full display in A Sensitive Person

Apart from the rhythm of his language itself, the main device Topol uses to drive his prose forward is ellipses rather than periods or other more definitive connective punctuation. Topolʼs debut novel, Sestra (Torst, 1994; published in my translation as City Sister Silver by Catbird Press in 2000), was relentless in its deployment of ellipses, a technique Topol adopted from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Here is a passage from chapter 4 of A Sensitive Person, describing the scene at Budapest Keleti, the main train station in the Hungarian capital:

Then they pass through a door and find themselves in the sleeping area. People with backpacks sit on the floor, indifferent to the announcements, as passengers hurry past . . . They killed us, raped us, a guy hunched over his laptop types, pecking out the letters . . . Chased us, murdered us . . . They lie on inflatable mattresses, camping mats, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the train station . . . We begged, we wept . . . the mountains couldnʼt hide us, the people wouldnʼt hide us . . . we fled to the sea, we are alive . . . the guy types out, deafened by the raspy soundtrack of departures and arrivals . . . And though the road leads nowhere, at least we are here on this earth.

Topol uses ellipses here like a movie camera lens: Zoom in: “. . . They killed us, raped us, a guy hunched over his laptop types, pecking out the letters . . . Chased us, murdered us.” Zoom out: “. . . They lie on inflatable mattresses, camping mats, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the train station.” Zoom in: “. . . We begged, we wept”—et cetera. In the final chapter Topol employs ellipses extensively, steering readersʼ eyes (and ears) from one character to another, again zooming in and out on the action, as well as in and out of charactersʼ heads:

The exhilarated Solder is still expecting to find a band of kindred spirits waiting for them on the lawn . . . maybe Black Lukáš could even bless the tank, he thinks, grinning to himself for what may be the hundredth time now in the course of this sensational ride.

He gives the young Tater Tot a merry slap on the back . . . yes, they came prepared to salute the guests with live fire and get the funeral party underway.

Neither Solder nor Tater Tot realize, however, that the lady cop with the bandaged head is blocking the tankʼs path . . . Napalm blinks in bewilderment, this lady cop is saluting them . . . And whatʼs that sheʼs shouting? Welcome, comrades! Then she hurls her cap in the air and yells, Hurrah! . . . She thinks weʼre Russkies, the dirty rat, flashes through Napalmʼs mind as the officer opens her mouth . . . She recognizes the long-haired, bearded old geezer bowing to them from the turret, tattoos running up and down his neck and cheeks, fishbone in his hair . . . and heʼs a repeat offender! Dropping behind the police car, the officer levels her gun.

Turning now to the second key characteristic of Topolʼs style—interrupting bleak or oppressive scenes with radiant, poetic imagery—here is an example from chapter 6:

Conflagrations blaze on the plateau. The borders flicker with dying flames. There are multitudes of them, dozens, perhaps hundreds of fires. In clumps and individually, the distant ones like match heads, the nearer ones like torches kindled upon the dusty, withered earth. It is a scene reminiscent of the night sky fading to dawn, spilled out over the furrowed earth by a tug on the universe, or perhaps some divine whim of God.

In general, throughout the novel, Topol waxes poetic on the beauty of the natural world at quiet moments in between human acts of cruelty and violence, moments such as this one:

The man in the slicker patters along at a brisk pace. Papa clomps along elephant-style. As the humans squish across the vivifying floor, a vibration of the subtlest frequencies seeps up toward them out of the algae, visible only under a microscope, multiplying in numbers quantifiable only by astronomy. Myriads of tiny shells move in copulatory bliss amid the tracks left behind in the soddening moss. Intoxicated springtails and whole armies of stone flies, bacchanalian revelers of the aquatic realm, frolic in the splashings. Creatures that live hours, days, only to serve as sanctuaries for larvae, planktonic organisms, and enormous water bugs, mandibled warriors, water-striding boyars of the insect kingdom.

The juxtaposition of beauty and brutality may be seen as a tactic calculated to produce an effect, though I am inclined to see it more as an expression of Topolʼs feelings toward the world, and his perspective on it, suggesting a wonderment and fascination at times bordering on religiosity. Whether or not God exists is a question voiced by characters in all of Topolʼs works, more often than not strongly tinged with the hope that the answer is yes. Unavoidably, it was a subject that came up repeatedly in interviews with him about this novel in particular. And if Topol himself shies away from identifying unambiguously as Catholic, Czech critics have documented Catholic symbolism throughout his work.³

2. See the authorʼs website: https://

3. For example, Klára Kudlová, a literary historian in the Catholic Theological Faculty at Charles University, observes that the Madonna is a recurrent figure in Topolʼs oeuvre, even going so far as to claim, “The various Madonnas—the Polish Madonna of Częstochowa [City Sister Silver], the War Madonna in fictionalised modern-day Russia [A Sensitive Person], and finally the Czech Madonna of Poříčí [again A Sensitive Person]—create a Christian counterworld in Topolʼs novels, and signalize the persistent role and presence of spirituality in the region [of Central Europe].” Klára Kudlová, “On Fields of Bones, Headsmen and Madonnas: The Symbols and Figures of Central Europe in the Past 25 Years of Jáchym Topolʼs Writing,” Porównania 2 (27), 2020, 247–63,

From the “Translator’s Introduction” in A Sensitive Person: A Novel by Jáchym Topol, translated by Alex Zucker. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Jáchym Topol is a novelist, poet, dramatist, and journalist. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages. He lives in Prague.

Alex Zucker has translated novels by such Czech authors as Topol, Bianca Bellová, Petra Hůlová, and Tomáš Zmeškal. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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