The only previous Czech novel I have read is Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, Gargling with Tar is very similar in places especially its coverage of war in Czechoslovakia. Topol was born in 1962, and as a young boy lived through the Prague Spring of 1968; Gargling with Tar covers this period of time, and the life of a young boy during 1968. I have to admit that without knowing too much about the history of Czechoslovakia, and its successors the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I may have missed parts of the underlying themes of the novel, however it was hugely interesting and a well written work.
Topol divides his novel into two parts; the first of which tells of the lives of young boys in an orphanage run by nuns, which later is turned into a military academy by communists. In this first section we meet Ilya, a boy living in the orphanage, and his younger disabled brother named Monkeyface. We are shown a home in which the nuns are in charge, strictly and often cruelly; when the boys lie they are forced to gargle with tar, hence the name of the novel. There is an obvious sense of relief when the nuns are driven out by the communists, however this doesn’t last too long. The boys of the orphanage descend into Lord of the Flies style situation, with the nuns usual order and routines replaced by the boys rambunctiousness and brutality. This is only brought under control by the communists, who then train the boys into potential soldiers.
Ilya, in the second part of the novel, becomes a saboteur and guide; thanks to his knowledge of the local terrain. Ilya switches sides from those supporting the Prague Spring to the invading forces of the Warsaw Pact. At this point Ilya becomes more sexually aware; witnessing the sexual abuse of his double by a war hero, and the rape of a number of Czech women by soldiers. He also begins to understand that the image of Czechia, a heroic female figure in Bohemia, is often portrayed as a very pornographic image. The young man is also complicit in much of the armies plundering of the land, including times when they burn farms and destroy villages. Ilya is caught up with an army troop who are tasked with creating a socialist circus, including a dwarf, bears, camels and a mermaid, the purpose being to showcase the talents of the Eastern bloc, and therefore the benefits of the invasion.
Gargling with Tar is an interesting novel, it highlights a piece Czech history from the eyes of a young boy, yet we have to take everything with a pinch of salt. The title itself is directly taken from the manner in which Ilya, and other orphans, were punished by nuns for lying. Ilya is an unreliable narrator and is the whole novel could be a true work of fiction; can we believe him at all? Topol has intrigued me, and I’d like to explore more of his literature, he’s also inspired me to look into more Czech literature, and learn about the Czech history.