by Jean Echenoz
New Press, The
$19.95 List Price
Jean Echenoz's twelfth book, his second historical novel, throws into relief the difficult and remarkable life of Emil Zátopek, a Czech long-distance runner. The story might be merely inspirational if Echenoz did not tell it so truthfully: Though Zátopek is regarded as one of the greatest runners of the twentieth century, his famously brutal training techniques and graceless form suggested an expertise almost wrenched from his body: "He knows he can rely on himself and on his love of pain," Echenoz writes.
In fact, given not only Zátopek's Herculean exercise regimen but also the punishing manual labor that bookended his athletic career, Working seems as appropriate a title for Echenoz's novel as Running. Zátopek's first race as a teenager was sponsored by his employer, a shoe-rubber factory in the industrial town of Zlín. Decades later, after the ill-fated Prague Spring, he was forced by the Soviets to work in a uranium pit mine, then to join a Prague garbage crew—residents nonetheless cheered him as he jogged behind the truck.
Echenoz, who writes in the intimate, conversational style he employed in his recent novel on the composer Maurice Ravel, dutifully chronicles Zátopek's astonishing performance at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he won three gold medals—in the five- and ten-thousand-meter races, as well in the marathon, the first he'd ever run. By 1953, Zátopek had smashed eight world records and was virtually peerless. Between the races won and records broken, however, Echenoz lingers on the complex relationship Zátopek developed with the Czech Communist Party.