by Jean Echenoz (Courir, 2008)
translated from the French by Linda Coverdale (2009)
The New Press (2009)
128 pp

I enjoyed Echenoz’s Lightning so much that I immediately read the other two books in his trilogy of fictionalized biographies.  Running, the second Echenoz wrote, is the only one about someone I knew nothing about, though that’s probably more my own ignorance at fault. Do you know who Emil Zátopek was? I didn’t.

Nevertheless, I looked forward to this book for a couple of reasons. The first: as I mentioned above, I’m a recently converted fan of Jean Echenoz and will seek out all he has written, regardless of the subject. It is a lot of fun to read his whimsical prose. The second: reading a book about running interested me. I’m no runner, but there’s something about that sport, particularly endurance running, that has always fascinated me, something about the pain these athletes put themselves through each time they seek to cross a finish line. Watching long-distance events, albeit while I’m seated, wears me out, but I love it. Now, if running doesn’t interest you, go back to my first point above: read Running because Echenoz wrote it, and Echenoz will make sure you have a good time.

Emil Zátopek was a world-famous long-distance runner from Czechoslovakia. He was born in 1922, just four years after Czechoslovakia became independent due to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he died in 2000, just eight years after Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the middle was German occupation, Communism, revolution, the quashing of revolution, and garbage collection (due to Emil’s minor role in the revolution he was assigned to be a garbageman, this world-famous Olympic gold medalist).

Though Running tracks Emil’s life as a runner — focusing on his unlikely start, his vigorous personal training, his emergence into competitive running, his eventual world-fame, and then his decline as younger athletes started beating him — there is no doubt that Running probably wouldn’t have been written were it not for the political turmoil that underscored and controlled Emil’s running career.

The book begins with Emil as a young man, about sixteen years old, working in the Bata shoe factory in his hometown Zlín. He was not a runner and didn’t have much interest in sports of any kind. One day at the factory (and he wasn’t happy about it at all at the time), he was pressured into participating in a footrace. The way Echenoz describes it, something fell into place. Emil discovered he loved running and soon went to extremes to test himself:

Emil walks along a lane lined with poplars on his way to the factory and back every day, which gives him a new idea. The first day, he holds his breath until the fourth poplar; the next two days, until the fifth; then the sixth, and so on every two days until he can finally get to the end of the lane without breathing. But once he gets there, he passes out. He passes out another time while taking a cold shower after twelve straightaways taken at top speed. He gives up such eccentricities but finds it all very interesting. He always wants to know how far . . .

Around this time, the Germans who entered and occupied Moravia at the beginning of the book, creating an oppressive atmosphere of fear, are ousted, and the people hope for life free from fear. Of course, this isn’t how it turns out, as one form of oppression gives way to another and people still felt that they couldn’t speak to each other about anything. Meanwhile, Emil keeps going, surprising himself and others as he continues to do better; he even begins to break some Czech records. In large part, Emil’s success is so surprising because his form is awful. How can a man apparently so clumsy and out of control run so swiftly for so long? I love how Echenoz describes his peculiar style:

There are runners who seem to fly, others who seem to dance, still others who look as if they were sitting on top of their legs. There are those who simply look as if they’ve been summoned and are hurrying as fast as possible. Emil, nothing like all that.

Emil, you’d think he was excavating, like a ditch digger, or digging deep into himself, as if he were in a trance. Ignoring every time-honored rule and any thought of elegance, Emil advances laboriously, in a jerky, tortured manner, all in fits and starts. He doesn’t hide the violence of his efforts, which shows in his wincing, grimacing, tetanized face, constantly contorted by a rictus quite painful to see. [. . . ] and hunkered down between his shoulders, on that neck always leaning in the same direction, his head bobs along endlessly, lolling and wobbling from side to side.

You can check out Emil’s form in this archival footage (here). When told he should work on his form, Emil said no, he just needed to run faster. When told he should at least try to look decent out there, he responded, “I swear it really does hurt, what I do — don’t you think I’d rather smile?” If ever he is judged on grace and smiles, like figure skaters, he’ll work on his form.

As it stands, of course it doesn’t matter; Emil is soon the best long-distance runner in the world, at one point holding eight world records. It’s a fabulous story in and of itself, but, as I said, there’s more to Echenoz’s project.

As Emil rises to international fame, his government notices and seeks to capitalize on his success to the point of limiting it.

World champion: the reaction is immediate and he’s promoted to captain and then his troubles begin. Those in high places put their heads together: the definitely consider Emil living proof of the wonders of Socialism. In which case, they should keep him close to home, not waste him, not send him abroad too much. The rarer he is, the better. Plus, it would be too bad if while on one of those trips he were — on a sudden impulse — to cross over to the other side, the unspeakable side of capitalism and imperialism.

While in real life Emil was known to have publicly stated his support for his government and to have insulted the governments of countries who invited him to be their guest, Echenoz presents another side, a side that seems to match up nicely with Emil’s later life. For example, here is how Echenoz presents Emil’s plight just after he is invited to the United States:

Comrade, you will of course refuse this invitation, announce the authorities, handing him a paper, but we’d also welcome a few words from you on the subject. Words, for example, like these.

As Echenoz writes on the subject of one man’s individual success exploited for the good of the whole, Echenoz really is having fun, making this short book far from dry no matter your feelings toward running or the post-War government of Czechoslovakia. Echenoz fills the book with fun facts (or, fictions close to fact — I don’t know, for example, if Emil’s interviews were so manipulated by his government) and linguistic play. All the while, despite the games he’s playing, Echenoz keeps the book focused. Here he is, for example, having fun with Emil’s name:

This name of Zátopek that was nothing, that was nothing but a funny name, begins to clatter around the world in three mobile and mechanical syllables, an inexorable waltz in three beats, galloping hooves, the throbbing of a turbine, the clacking of valves or connecting rods punctuated by the final k, sparked by the initial z that darts off already quite fast: say zzz and it’s speeding right away, as if that consonant were a starter.

About a page later, and underscoring how something can ultimately come to represent anything with just the right amount of spin — including how the practically solitary and personal achievement of long-distance running can represent the good of Communism — Echenoz undercuts his theory on Emil’s last name:

This is all fine and dandy, except that a last name — you can make it say or evoke whatever you please. Had Emil been a grain broker, a non-figurative painter, or a political commissar, his name would doubtless have proved completely suitable for each profession, equally well denoting rational management, lyrical abstraction, or a chill up the spine. It would have worked just fine every time.

Ultimately, behind his name, Emil is just a man who loves to run and who is sucked into the whims of history. Echenoz’s balance is deft; after all, isn’t he also using Emil to represent some statement? It’s not that simple, for throughout Running, despite his own steps to use Emil’s life to represent an idea, Echenoz succeeds in presenting this man as a man, and it’s an enjoyable ride.

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