The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2011 – Gargling with Tar
Gargling with Tar is the second of Jachym Topol’s novels to be translated into English (the first, City Sister Silver appeared ten years ago) and, as its striking cover may have suggested to you, it is set in Czechoslovakia during 1968 when Warsaw Pact forces prevented the country from freeing itself from the Soviet Union. As with Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Topol adopts a child’s perspective on events which goes a long way to enhance the chaos and confusion of the time.
That child, Ilya, lacks any stability even prior to the invasion, living as he does in an orphanage ironically named the Home from Home. Even his nationality is unclear, and a variety of languages are spoken at the home – the boys are made to gargle tar (water made soapy with tar soap) for speaking their own language, as well as for lying:
“Some boys spoke their own unintelligible language, though the nuns didn’t allow it. You had to gargle tar for that. Any foreign words were washed away from their throats with bubbles of pain, then the boys were topped up with Czech.”
Ilya’s multi-lingualism is later seen as a useful skill, allowing him to work as an interpreter and to escape from more than one dangerous situation. It’s an early sign that this is not a nationalist novel, and that Topol will present both sides of the conflict unflinchingly, to the point where the sides themselves seem to disappear.
Our sympathy for Ilya is enhanced by the care of he takes of his disabled brother, Monkeyface. Although older, he says with the younger boys in order to protect his brother, finding himself, as for much of the novel, caught between the two camps. The chaos begins when Czech Communists arrive and expel the nuns who have been looking after the boys from the home. Monkeyface is one of the first victims, placed inside a washing-machine drum by some of the younger boys and then falling to his death from a window as Ilya attempts to carry him upstairs:
“He thrust me put of the way, and now he was top-heavy and banged his head against the window. I grabbed him by his feet, but he kicked out at me and flew headfirst through the glass. He fell, turning once or twice in the air, then thumped down, landing on his back in the snow, bits of glass showering down around him.”
The accidental nature of Monkeyface’s death suggests that Topol is not interested in assigning blame but in alerting us to the unpredictable cruelty of the times to come. With the death of his brother, Ilya loses his anchor in the world and becomes an isolated figure looking to belong, whether with the older boys and their plan to join the Foreign Legion, or with the Russian tank crew he later befriends. As the novel progresses he moves from side to side, accepted but never belonging, one moment riding on the front of a Russian tank, the next hiding with some of the boys from the orphanage, now fighting with the Czech resistance. The circles in which he intentionally leads the tanks represent the narrowing circle in which his own life is moving, as he encounters the same characters again and again, Topol using them to highlight the effects of the war: Mr Cimbura with “his face…terribly burnt, the light from the candles gliding over the craters in its ancient skin”; and Hanka, a local girl he was once friends with, last seen among a group of women being raped by Russian soldiers:
“That was the worst thing. I kept losing sight of people. Not like round a bend in a corridor or behind a tree. People were suddenly gone forever.”
The novel is also full of myths and legends, appropriate to its setting in a forest. These centre on the national figure of Czechia, but also include the ‘dinosaur egg’ that the Russian commander wishes to take back to Moscow, and the wolf that Margash claims is his father. When a wolf finally appears it is “cringing” and “all thin and moulted”; and when Ilya rescues a girl who has been tied naked to a bath tub for the pleasure of soldiers, he thinks he has found Czechia. Almost everyone he meets is following some dream or personal mythology.
Gargling with Tar blends realism and surrealism to create a vivid picture Czechoslovakia in 1968. By having a narrator who is ideologically uninvolved but in a life or death struggle to survive, Topol places the focus on what it might have felt like to be there rather than adopt the safer perspective of history.