Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Review of Jean Echenoz, Running: a Novel (2008, trans. 2009)

There are three and a half reasons why we should be interested in the subject of this book, the Czech runner known as ‘the locomotive’, Emil Zatopek.

First, he was a 4-time Olympic champion and multiple world-record holder. Second, he played a bit part in post-war Czech politics, symbolizing the working-man’s graft before speaking out against the Soviet invasion in 1968 and being sent to work in a uranium mine. The half-reason is that he seems to have been a nice chap, giving his 10,000m Olympic medal away to a runner he felt better deserved it.

This book by Jean Echenoz – a Prix Goncourt winner and household name in France – intertwines these narratives, but never in more than a box-ticking way. It even admits as much in various nervous asides, introducing the runner’s decline thusly : ‘I don’t know about you but for me, all these exploits, victories, trophies are beginning to wear a bit thin. Which is no bad thing, because as it happens Emile is shortly going to start losing races’ (I’m translating here and below).

Still, all is not lost. Because there is one more reason – *the* reason – to write about Zatopek, and that is his running style. In making a list of most arresting and peculiar topics that have been written about, you could include the memory and time (Proust) or the nature of divine love (Dante). You could also include Emil Zatopek’s running style. Before Echenoz, it had been described as ‘a man trying to wrestle an octopus whilst travelling on a conveyor belt’.

The simplest is to read part of the book’s description of this style: ‘It looks like he is living on borrowed time, burrowing away, like gravedigger in a trance. Far from emulating the greats and their elegance, Emile moves forward heavily, torturedly, jerkly, in fits and starts. The violence of his efforts is clear, it can be read on his strained, frozen, grimacing face, always twisted as it is by horrific spasms. His features are altered, as if torn asunder by awful suffering, his tongue lolls out now and then, and one suspects he may have a scorpion in each shoe. When running he seems absent from himself, he seems to be in some terrifying other realm, he is so concentrated that he disappears, and yet he is more present than anyone. Hunkered down between his shoulders, on his neck which always cranes to the same side, his head bobs endlessly, shudders and tosses from left to right’.

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