The obsessiveness of the long-distance runner


FICTION: RunningBy Jean Echenoz Translated by Linda Coverdale (The New Press, 126pp. £12.57)

IMMORTALITY IS a strange concept. Why are some men remembered while so many others are forgotten? A hero defies many things, even death. In ancient times a hero was usually a warrior, proven in battle. But valour yielded to prowess, and the modern era has tended to settle on a different type of immortal: the champion athlete who has faced all barriers, physical pain and hardship, only to triumph. The great Czech distance runner Emil Zátopek was one such hero. Born into poverty he went to work in a shoe factory where, although the smell of rubber was overpowering, he never complained.

Quiet and polite, Zátopek was a good-natured lad, eager to please, always curious. He didn’t want to take part in the cross-country race organised for factory workers, because he didn’t like running. But he did compete, and finished second. The experience made him think, and the rest is history, wonderful and moving and desperately sad.

French writer Jean Echenoz is a proven original possessed of an extraordinary lightness of touch, which he shapes into sharp, playful, always perceptive narratives. Winner of the Prix Goncourt for I’m Off (also known as I’m Gone) in 1999, his other novels include the frenzied comedy Cherokee (1987), Piano (2004) and Ravel (2007), which was shortlisted for the 2009 International Impac Dublin Literary Award. In Ravel, Echenoz took the facts of the final decade of the French composer’s life and created a remarkable portrait of an artistic consciousness.

With Zátopek, Echenoz has gone further, and looks at the way a passive individual evolved into an Olympian and one of the enduring giants of track and field. Zátopek did honour to his country, yet his success would eventually irritate the authorities. In Running, his rise is exciting, his exploitation by the political propagandists infuriating, his decline, culminating in his collapse in Melbourne in 1956, moving beyond words.

The facts appear simple: Zátopek dominated distance running, set world records over nine distances and was the first man to run under 29 minutes for 10,000 metres. He won the 10,000 metres at the London Olympics in 1948 and also took the silver in the 5,000 metres.

Four years later, at the Helsinki Olympics, Zátopek, of the agonised running style, became an invincible force and achieved the seemingly impossible. Not only did he win the 5,000 metres and the 10,000 metres, he also took the gold medal in the marathon in his debut at the distance. Even now, despite all the other champions who have come and gone in the intervening years, Emil Zátopek is still hailed as a god, and rightly so.

He was poor, by nature quiet, and lived under the thumb of communism at its most oppressive. He was used by his political masters, who continually interfered with his career and controlled the invitations he received to compete abroad. They tried to make his victories seem less about him than about the system. Echenoz, writing in a jaunty, continuous present tense – his barbed, deadpan tone cleverly rendered in English by the always intuitive Linda Coverdale – uses the facts and writes about athletics with sufficient competence to satisfy readers with a specialist interest without alienating the general reader.

An athlete, particularly a distance runner, is a lonely figure. Nothing can take the place of the endless miles, the pounding of roads that earns more than fitness, that develops endurance. Echenoz is very good on conveying a sense of a man who was initially a reluctant runner. But Zátopek’s interest soon led to obsession, an exploration of the body’s physical limits. Aware that he had stamina, he began working on his speed.

Wartime Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Germans, then the Russians took over. After the war’s end, “Emil is called up, he leaves the Bata works without regret. Right away, he prefers garrison life to the factory. In tiptop shape, he finds the daily drill a breeze, likes going on manoeuvres out in the Moravian countryside, climbs hills with his regiment, enjoys marching in step through nature and breathing the fresh air unsullied by silicate dust.”

Echenoz has done his research without allowing it to overpower the narrative. Present-day athletes will recoil in horror on reading how Zátopek often travelled for hours by train, arriving at a stadium without having eaten or slept, and then raced to victory through a combination of intent and disregard for physical pain. It is incredible, all the more so because it is true.

So dominant was Zátopek that he dared to become boring: “he is incomparable . . . his last name becomes for everyone the incarnation of power and velocity, joining that small army of synonyms for speed.” Rumour begins its nasty tricks, and there are those who think that it is his catchy name rather than his talent that has assured his fame: “wonder if it isn’t this name that created the myth, wrote the legend . . .”

Echenoz sees Zátopek living and running in isolation while all manner of intrigue carries on around him. The biggest fear for the authorities was that he would defect to the West. Zátopek watched as younger challengers emerged for his crown and his records, but when he was reduced to working as a garbage collector the public refused to allow their hero to empty their bins.

Emil Zátopek died in 2000 at the age of 78. The world had changed by then and his Czechoslovakia no longer existed. But Echenoz does not bring the story to the end of the athlete’s life, only to the end of his running. Longlisted for this year’s International Impac Dublin Literary Award, this intelligent little novel is every bit as huge-hearted as its subject.

Jean Echenoz, the wise magician, has done it again, looked deep into the soul of a man and men, making us all think that bit more clearly, more humanely.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times