There are three and a half reasons why we should be interested in the subject of this book, the Czech runner known as ‘the locomotive’, Emil Zatopek.
First, he was a 4-time
Olympic champion and multiple world-record holder. Second, he played a
bit part in post-war Czech politics, symbolizing the working-man’s graft
before speaking out against the Soviet
invasion in 1968 and being sent to work in a uranium mine. The
half-reason is that he seems to have been a nice chap, giving his
10,000m Olympic medal away to a runner he felt better deserved it.
This book by Jean Echenoz – a Prix Goncourt winner and household name
in France – intertwines these narratives, but never in more than a
box-ticking way. It even admits as much in various nervous asides,
introducing the runner’s decline thusly : ‘I don’t know about you but
for me, all these exploits, victories, trophies are beginning to wear a
bit thin. Which is no bad thing, because as it happens Emile is shortly
going to start losing races’ (I’m translating here and below).
Still, all is not lost. Because there is one more reason – *the* reason
– to write about Zatopek, and that is his running style. In making a
list of most arresting and peculiar topics that have been written about,
you could include the memory and time (Proust) or the nature of divine
love (Dante). You could also include Emil Zatopek’s running style.
Before Echenoz, it had been described as ‘a man trying to wrestle an
octopus whilst travelling on a conveyor belt’.
The simplest is
to read part of the book’s description of this style: ‘It looks like he
is living on borrowed time, burrowing away, like gravedigger in a
trance. Far from emulating the greats and their elegance, Emile moves
forward heavily, torturedly, jerkly, in fits and starts. The violence
of his efforts is clear, it can be read on his strained, frozen,
grimacing face, always twisted as it is by horrific spasms. His features
are altered, as if torn asunder by awful suffering, his tongue lolls
out now and then, and one suspects he may have a scorpion in each shoe.
When running he seems absent from himself, he seems to be in some
terrifying other realm, he is so concentrated that he disappears, and
yet he is more present than anyone. Hunkered down between his shoulders,
on his neck which always cranes to the same side, his head bobs
endlessly, shudders and tosses from left to right’.