Understated novel about the rise and fall of Czech runner Emil Zátopek.
Goncourt winner Echenoz (Ravel, 2007, etc.) recently seems to be specializing in thinly fictionalizing the lives of real people. Zátopek is a good choice for inherent drama; he was at first rewarded and then punished by Communist Party authorities. The decision to reward came easily, for Zátopek astounded all by running. For many years he remained an officer in the Czech army and received a promotion with almost every victory, from European championships to the Olympics. Echenoz emphasizes that Zátopek was not a stylish runner but instead an awkward and ungainly plugger—not pretty to watch but pragmatically effective. For a while he simply couldn’t be beaten, and for more than five years he was the fastest man in the world in long distances. While his specialty was the 10,000 meters, he also showed himself adept at both 5,000 meters and marathons, winning gold medals in all three at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Eventually, however, age and a punishing training regimen took a toll on his body, and he started to lose. In one telling and sorrowful moment, Zátopek passes through Orly airport on his way to a race in Spain and sees the usual crush of news reporters and photographers. “How kind of them to show up,” he thinks, “it’s always nice to see you haven’t been forgotten.” In fact, he finds, they’re gathered to report on Elizabeth Taylor, who has just flown in from London. When he comments on the Soviet invasion of 1968, his naïve and impolitic remarks lead the authorities to strip him of his army commission and his right to live in Prague, then to banish him to work in a uranium mine.
An engaging but subdued portrait of a legend.