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. At international races, he was shadowed by officials for fear he would defect. He compliantly turned down an invitation to run in the United States, reading a canned statement from apparatchiks that declared American racing facilities too shoddy.
Yet after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, he called for a boycott of the USSR at the 1968 Olympic Games and was promptly stripped of his job, his titles, and his party membership. One of Echenoz's more chilling passages recounts a visit to Zátopek's wife, Dana, by a foreign journalist. He finds her accompanied by a "friend": "a jovial home economics teacher, a woman who is extremely attentive, helpful, considerate, and who never leaves her side, even when the tea is made," and who drops the mask as soon as the journalist departs. As for Zátopek himself, Echenoz leaves him not far from where he began: anonymous, forgotten, pushing papers in a basement office in Prague.
The author recounts all this in an understated voice that does not beatify Zátopek so much as it reminds us of his virtues: patience, self-discipline, and an exceptional gift for absorbing pain. And given that Zátopek was—ironically but unavoidably—known for his modesty off the track, Echenoz's little book is probably just the tribute he would have wanted.