Zátopek!

I’m not 100% sure what to make of Jean Echenoz’s short novel Running (published in French as Courir in 2008, with the English translation by Linda Coverdale published by the New Press in 2009), other than to say that I enjoyed it immensely and read it in one sitting when I should have been reading something else since I had to teach that afternoon. It is ostensibly a fictionalized biography of the great mid-century Czechoslovakian runner Emil Zátopek. Echenoz relates the details of Zátopek’s development as a runner and his triumphs on the track in an engaging, unornamented fashion.

There’s an unembellished matter-of-factness to the prose style that separates it from biography. And that’s probably the structuring irony: any straightforward biographer would have drawn on fiction’s ability to generate tension or provide insight into character. In avoiding this, Echenoz provides us with a fictionalization that generates a truth about Zátopek that non-fiction could not provide. I’m really just glossing Lacan and Zizek here, I suppose.  Lacan’s “truth has the structure of a fiction” provides the basic model for understanding how non-fiction works draw on fictional models to produces their sense of the real. Add to this Zizek’s observation on Kieslowski’s shift from documentary to fiction feature film-making as being catalyzed by “the fright of real tears,” and you have a conceptual matrix within which Echenoz’s writing might be understood.

What initially drew me to the novel was its cover, which features a tinted photo of Zatopek with the familiar look of strain and exertion on his face as he leaves other runners in his wake. Zátopek, whose career peak was the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, was certainly before my time, but he’s enough of a track and field legend that, as someone who has a passing interest in the sport, I knew the basics of his life and of his career as a runner. He is most famous for his brutal training methods and his lack of fluidity and grace on the track. His tactic in training was to leave nothing in reserve, to push himself to an even faster pace when it seemed he could give no more. The brutality of this method corresponded to his running style, which seemed labored and inefficient but somehow held within it hidden reserves that could be explosively revealed in the final lap. The best chapter in the novel is the one Echenoz dedicates to describing Zátopek in motion:

This training method allows him to exhaust his adversaries through a great number of interpolated sprints, while conserving energy for the end of the race, which is always extremely violent. He constantly varies his pace, running in raggedy tempos with sudden changes in speed that draw bitter complaints from those who run in his wake. For not only is it almost impossible for them to follow that short little bumpy, uneven, wildly fluctuating stride Emil whips up, not only do those constant variations of rhythm complicate their lives to no end, and not only does his strange, exhausted style, driven by the rigid gestures of an automaton, hoodwink and thus discourage them, but to top it all off, the perpetual head-bobbing and those constantly windmilling arms make them dizzy to boot.

Surely here, with all those subordinate clauses that extend the sentence nearly to its breaking point, Echenoz is trying to reproduce in prose something of Zátopek’s unorthodox style. But what it also captures is Zátopek’s playfulness and energy. He, for all the pain that registered on his face whilst running, seemed also to be having fun, not in a malicious or arrogant way, but simply as a matter of course.

The temptation is, I suppose, to read Echenoz’s Zátopek as representative of something. A number of possibilities clearly emerge. A more nimble Benjaminian than myself might be able to explain Zátopek as representative of history itself, not simply in terms of having lived through, and been caught within, the dramas of the Cold War, but as a symbol of how history proceeds in inelegant fits and starts, pained and straining. Or it could be an allegory of nation itself, with Zátopek’s quiet intensity and drive somehow representing the conjoined Czechoslovakia faced with Soviet oppression in the wake of the Nazi occupation. Or, since the novel is titled Running rather than topek, perhaps it is all rather meta-reflexive, running as a meditation on writing and form, a companion to Haruki Murakami’s running memoir What I talk about when I talk about running. There’s no need to decide between these options, or even to select any one of them. It is more that this type of fictional biography invites this kind of speculation, this desire for its subject, whether it be Zátopek or running, to mean something more, something larger.

In an endnote to the novel, Echenoz encourages readers to turn to YouTube to see footage of Zátopek in motion. He chooses Zátopek’s victory in the 5000m at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

The breathless Finnish commentary conveys something of the excitement that surrounded Zátopek at the Games. He went on after his victory in the 5000m, unbelievably, to win gold in the 10,000m and the marathon. More tempting for cinema fans is the short clip of Zátopek in Chris Marker’s Olympia ’52. In it, at about the two minute mark, Zátopek appears with his wife Dana, who also competed in the Helsinki Olympics in javelin.

The clip pushes me toward another obsession, Chris Marker, and how he turns up everywhere in the twentieth century and even into the twenty-first. More Marker later, but for now I’ll end with Echenoz’s playful observations about his protagonist’s name and his reputation as a running machine:

Besides, even since his first great success at the London Games, at twenty-six, there has been no one to compare with Emil: he is incomparable. For six years, the next two thousand days, he will be the fastest man on earth over long distances. To the point that his last name becomes for everyone the incarnation of power and velocity, joining that small army of synonyms for speed. 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. Plus the fact that a fluid first name lubricates the machine: a can of Emil oil comes with the Zátopek engine.

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