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'The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them'
A young boy grows up in Terez�n - an infamous fortress town with a sinister past. Together with his friends he plays happily in this former Nazi prison, scouting the tunnels for fragments of history under the careful eye of one of its survivors, Uncle Lebo, until one day there is an accident, and he is forced to leave.
Returning to Terez�n many years later, he joins Lebo's campaign to preserve the town, but before long the authorities impose a brutal crack-down, chaos ensues, and the narrator finds himself fleeing to Belarus, where fresh horrors drive him ever closer to the evils he had hoped to escape.
Bold, brilliant and blackly comic, The Devil's Workshop paints a deeply troubling portrait of two countries dealing with their ghosts and asks: at what point do we consign the past to history?
Am not impressed by this short, bleak novel situated during WW II and in 2008 in the Czech republic (part 1) and Belarus (part 2), but with plenty of flashbacks. Its starting point is promising: why do so many second and third generation Holocaust survivors visit the sites of mass murder? Is it about how the West and East remember their WW II dead: with monuments, plaques, beautifully maintained graveyards, annual remembrance days and ceremonies, but rarely anything special for Jews? Is that why so many young people are drawn to Terezin aka Theresienstadt, an ancient bulwarked garrison town with a Nazi camp and railhead for transports eastward? How will they appreciate this novel? It is not brilliantly composed or written. Its characters are not well drawn or riveting. The nameless narrator admits early on that he served time for killing his own father, and helped the Czech executioner calm down men facing death by hanging, earning him early release and return to his origins, Terezin and its subterraneous warrens and tunnels. As a child, he gave Lebo, a man miraculously born in and surviving the camp, whatever he found underground. Released, he serves him as internet fundraiser and campaign manager helping Lebo become a Holocaust guru attracting ever more tourists whilst local authorities are keen to shut down every memory of WW II: Terezin had become a game park. The much weaker part 2, about what happens next in Belarus, is for readers to discover. Find it not in good taste. Topol’s novel is short, engaging and lively, eventful even. His arguing about what constitutes the East (and West) is perhaps new. His reflections about totalitarianism and genocide are not always original. The author’s own and his translator’s afterword are helpful for some to make further sense of this book. Nonetheless, what is the point Topol tries to make?