Start It Up and Let It Rip
On Jáchym Topol and Alex Zucker's A Sensitive Person
And the Official Du Mois Selection for Jan. ‘23 is Jáchym Topol’s A Sensitive Person, translated by Alex Zucker and published by Yale University Press as part of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series.
Jalopy is such a negative term. Sure, in our lightning-round recap of the 2022 Du Mois cycle I’d favorably compared Mónica Ojeda and Sarah Booker’s Jawbone to a vehicular monstrosity on par with the legendary Grave Digger, all seductive prowess welded to pyrotechnic showmanship. An imposing machine created for a single destructive purpose. But there’s also something to be said for the enduring appeal of the cantankerous clunker. You know, a rust bucket, a shitbox, a death trap. (Slightly pejorative characterizations, but so what? Seatbelts are passé anyhow—just get in the car!) Dilapidated yet seemingly indestructible, these high-mileage workhorses make up for what they lack in brute strength with a down-but-never-out mentality, a dogged refusal to quit even as the wheels fall off.
Such is the raw, peculiar power of Jáchym Topol and Alex Zucker’s A Sensitive Person. A road warrior in the strictest sense, junkyard ingenuity personified.
Ostensibly concerning a Shakespearean mom-and-pop troupe (emphasis on the pop as mom is largely relegated to the role of McGuffin while child-imperiling hijinks ensue), Topol’s episodic hodgepodge ultimately serves as a traveling compendium of swindlers, agitators, rascals, roustabouts, biker gangs, and assorted river folk. An embedded exposé on the flea-bitten fringes, it would be fair to say that A Sensitive Person has a bit of a learning curve. The sheer variety of intersecting tongues, each spouting a proprietary vernacular, would prove daunting enough on its own (to his credit, Zucker commendably offers a tutorial to these shifting registers in his introduction), but Topol also places his wayward menagerie amidst a series of increasingly madcap sketches. Memorable segments feature the poolside assault of a gorilla and a hostage scenario involving Gérard Depardieu, respectively. Rare are the vignettes here, in fact, which could be considered anything less than indelibly bonkers.
A Sensitive Person is not, to be clear, merely shaggy for shag’s sake. Instead, the novel seems more interested in presenting an anthropological assessment of vaudevillian anarchy, a gonzo picaresque reported on with the diligence and compassion of a war correspondent. Somewhere among this Czech Guernica‘s escalating antics lies a weary humanitarianism, wheezing and thrusting in defiance of idle stagnation.
And the Du Mois clearly has an affinity for just this sort of rickety caravan, as evidenced by the impressionistic blur of Andrzej Tichý’s Wretchedness (tr. Nichola Smalley, June ‘20), Réjean Ducharme’s series-defining Swallowed (tr. Madeleine Stratford, Apr. ‘21), or last year’s pugnacious Mondegreen: Songs about Death and Love by Volodymyr Rafeyenko (tr. Mark Andryczyk, Apr. ‘22). Whiz-bang, kinetic ramblers that live by no law but a rōnin-like inertia and leave no forwarding address.
The extensive Topol-Zucker back catalog includes such publications as City Sister Silver with mothballed Czech translation specialist Catbird Press, The Devil’s Workshop with Granta Books, and Angel Station with Dalkey Archive, for starters. (What, no Twisted Spoon Press?) With this installment in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series, the stars may be aligning for a renewed critical appreciation, a veritable Topol-mania. Regardless of whether a prophesied “Year of Topol” is upon us (following 2021’s Year of Volodine and 2022’s Year of Sorokin, naturally—though, full transparency, I’m still banking on 2023 being a Year of Djuna), A Sensitive Person has set one hell of a tone for the fifth season of the Du Mois.
For what it’s worth, this pick has the coveted distinction of being a no-precedent selection across the board. A bonafide clean entry, virginal as the driven snow. That means that January’s author, translator, publisher, and place of origin have never appeared in any previous sequence. Make a wish because, as I’ve mentioned before, these minor miracles are only going to become more scarce as picks accrue. On that note, here’s a sneak peek for the sickos: The official Du Mois selection for Feb. ‘23 will be Laurent Mauvignier’s The Birthday Party, translated by Daniel Levin Becker and published by Transit Books.
Justin Walls is a Du Mois Monthly co-editor and Bookstore Partnerships Coordinator with Bookshop.org.
It’s been a terrible month for reading, but not for books.
My month began with The Good Rain (not translated), Timothy Egan’s glorious Pacific Northwest classic. Here are three things I’m in the middle of, with various attention and dedication: How to Read a Rock by Jan Zalasiewicz (the pictures are pretty); Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell (a friend of Darwin and one of the fathers of geoscience), and Solenoid by Mircea Cărtărescu, as translated by John Sean Cotter. I can’t reveal my feelings yet on the last—I’ve made a vow in the new year to stop making definitive statements about books I haven’t finished—but yes, Solenoid is thus far as good as you think it is. And I have it on semi-substantiated reports that the Romanian writer will be visiting the United States. Possibly the Pacific Northwest. Possibly the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library. Possibly during the first or second week of April. But please… don’t spread semi-substantiated rumors.
One novel I’m finishing now, that is good, that I may possibly love, is Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, which lands in March from FSG. Lacey is undoubtedly a friend of the cause (the cause being translated literature—her novels are also wildly popular in the Italian market, I’ve read), so I feel a nod to her new novel is not unnecessary. Biography of X is set in an alternate history of the United States, in which the American South secedes after World War II and the remaining States are divided into Western and Northern territories. For obtuse nerds like you and me, the resulting alternate history of literary culture and publishing that Lacey includes in the margins of her novel is one of the rewards of close attention. New Directions receives many nods (a fictional editor from the press is interviewed by the author), there’s a letter from Denis Johnson, Renata Adler is cited as publishing narrative journalism about the Southern Terrorities… it’s Lacey’s most engrossing book since Nobody is Ever Missing. Nails are hit on the head with frequency.
2023 promises to be a busy year for translated literature. I’m carrying around a half dozen books at a time, reading around them, finishing nothing but admiring all. From Finnish author Pirkko Saisio I want to read The Book of Red Farewells (Two Lines Press, April)—art! communism! queer love! I was surprised to learn that Hungarian author Ágota Kristóf has The Illiterate (New Directions) coming out in April, translated by Nina Bogin. Kristof’s novels The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie were revolutionary in my mind.
I’m wielding a copy of Battle Songs by Daša Drndic (tr. Celia Hawkeswroth, New Directions, February). There’s Esther Kinsky’s Rombo, translated by Caroline Schmidt (NYRB, March). There’s a new collection of Bruno Schulz stories, Nocturnal Apparitions, translated by Stanley Bill (Pushkin, March). And it looks like Pantheon will be putting out Djuna’s sci-fi novel Counterweight in July, translated by Anton Hur. The list goes on forever, but I’ll end with the substantiated rumor that Jazmina Barrera will be dropping her first novel with Two Lines Press, called Cross-Stitch, by the end of this year. Christina MacSweeney returns to translate, after rendering Barrera’s previous two books, Linea Nigra and On Lighthouses.
Some of our readers know I daylight as the events person for Seattle’s Third Place Books—here are some remarks on how that’s been going, per the Seattle Times. Last year we had 20 events on the calendar featuring translated literature (all virtual except one). We have a website.
And if you’re so unfortunate as to find yourself in Seattle during AWP this year, come visit our Ravenna neighborhood on March 9th for our Night of Indie Presses. No, we couldn’t think of a better name. Many meetings were had. But yes, some Du Mois recipients and other people you like will be there. (Coffee House Press, Two Lines Press, Open Letter, Transit, Dalkey, Deep Vellum, Dorothy).
Spencer Ruchti is the Author Events Manager at Third Place Books, with three locations across Seattle and Lake Forest Park, WA. He is also friends with Justin.