1 February 2012

Jean Echenoz: Courir | Running (2008)

Courir, with its protagonist's globetrotting activities, is in some respects not dissimilar, for instance, to the wanderings of the protagonist in Un an (A Year) (1997), or the Arctic adventures in Je m'en vais (I'm Off ) (1999), and can therefore easily be included in Echenoz's 'geographical novels' section: movement is a frequent theme with the writer. This is also the second of his three biographical novels, chronologically coming between Ravel (2006), which concerns the final three years of Maurice Ravel's life (although concentrating on the earlier four months of the composer's American tour), and Des éclairs, concerning Nikola Tesla's life.

The subject of Courir is the Czech Émile Zátopek (1922–2000), one of the world's greatest long-distance runners, and the narrative follows the athlete through his successes in such cities as Oslo, Berlin, London, Helsinki, and Sao Paulo, to his eventual decline and (almost) professional end at the Olympic Games in Melbourne. The narrator treats Émile with warmth, humor, and with a casual, conversational style, and there's a rare first person intervention near the end of one chapter toward the end of the book: 'I don't know about you but me, with all these exploits, records, victories, trophies, I'd perhaps start to have had enough of it.'

Politics is never far from the story, and the first sentence of the novel begins in the late 1930s (when Émile is in his late teens) with the German occupation of Moravia, whereas the final chapter begins with the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Émile has moved from playful youthful defiance of the Germans' authority to serious open defiance of the Russians, for which the Russians try to shame him by making him work as a dustman, and when that fails because he's too popular they send him to the countryside to make holes in the ground for telegraph poles.

After a few years, he is asked to sign a 'confession' that exonerates the Russians far more than himself, and he is then given a job in the basement of the government sports information center as an archivist. Émile says his probably didn't deserve anything better.

My other Jean Echenoz posts:

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Jean Echenoz: Je m'en vais | I'm Gone
Jeaan Echenoz: Jérôme Lindon
Jean Echenoz: Lac | Chopin's Move
Jean Echenoz: Ravel

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