Jean Echenoz’s latest novel (or perhaps novella would be more accurate) is a fictionalised account of the life of the Czech runner Emil Zatopek. Interestingly, whereas in his previous fiction Echenoz plays with narrative – from the double narrative of Double Jeopardy to the statement on the first page of Piano that the main character will “die a violent death in twenty-two days’ time” – Running is strictly chronological, almost as if the pre-existence of the story in fact makes redundant any reordering of events.
The novel begins when Emil (as he is referred to throughout) is a young man and has not yet taken up running. Only accidentally does he discover his talent, coming second in his first race. As a local trainer remarks:
“You run funny but you don’t run so badly.”
Emil’s unconventional running style is mentioned throughout the narrative. In the words of one opponent:
“It’s unnatural…it’s completely unnatural. The guy does everything you’re not supposed to do and he’s winning.”
Echenoz clearly admires Emil for succeeding on his own terms and in his own way. Not only does this apply to his running style, but also to his training and tactics. As Echenoz points out, Emil ‘invents’ the sprint finish by working on his speed instead of just his stamina. While the long distance runner has always been synonymous with loneliness, the modern sportsman often relies on a team of experts to support them. Emile is entirely responsible for his own success, something that Echenoz emphasises to comic effect when he is the lone Czechoslovakian parading behind his flag in Berlin.
For all that this is a narrative of struggle, it frequently has a light-hearted tone. Sometimes the humour is direct:
“Since the war is over, everyone rearms.”
More often it is a result of Echenoz’s relaxed style, which underplays Emil’s success and makes him a more likeable character. Paragraphs often begin with conjunctions and informal phrases abound (“In tiptop shape, he finds the daily drill a breeze.”) Even finding himself lost in the ruins of Dresden at night is lightened through the use of the vernacular:
“He’s hungry, worn out, tired and, apart form that, it’s raining buckets.”
The narrative voice not only enhances Emil’s likeability by downplaying his successes but by avoiding an artificial feel of tragedy when he inevitably declines:
“It begins in Budapest, with those 10000 metres that are his distance, that belong only to him, but where he’s beaten by a certain Kovacs.”
This defeat is described as a “tough break”, but further victories still follow: this not the Hollywood version where highs and lows are spot-lighted through hyperbole and symbol.
Running, however, is not just Emil’s story; as fast as he is on the track, he can never outpace history. The novel begins with the German invasion of Czechoslovakia:
“The Germans have entered Moravia. They have arrived on horseback, on motorcycles, in automobiles, in trucks…”
And at the other end of the narrative, it all but ends with Soviet invasion which follows the Prague Spring, repetition making Echenoz’s point clear:
“The Soviets have entered Czechoslovakia. They have arrived by plane and in tanks.”
Emil’s own life is not unaffected. He is, of course, a national hero, and used for propaganda purposes. At one point, however, the authorities begin to worry that he may defect and so limit his appearances abroad. His running days over, he reappears in support of the Prague Spring, and earns himself exile to a series of humiliating jobs in the years after. Echenoz’s interest in the historical background is indicated in the fact that nine of the twenty chapters begin with reference to the political situation.
Running is a thoroughly enjoyable read, if at first glance little unambitious. However, it follows Echenoz’s fictionalised life of Ravel, suggesting that they may both be part of some larger project. If so, it certainly one worth following.