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12 september 2012

In Courir, Jean Echenoz continues the project of understated historical-biographical fiction that he began in Ravel. The subject this time is Emil Zatopek, the incomparable Czechoslovakian distance runner who excelled at the 1948 and 1952 Olympic Games. Much of the book seems deceptively like one of those bland juvenile sport biographies: our hero didn't like running, then he liked it, then he won one race after another. But the accounts of these victories are almost too bland; one continually senses that the author is after some entirely different effect. And then, about 2/3 of the way through the novel, the biggest race and biggest victory of Zatopek's life (the 1952 Helsinki marathon) gets told. No children's biography would spend another 50 pages on denouement, disillusionment, and decline.

So Courir both is and isn't a standard biographical sport novel. Its sport narratives are curiously matter-of-fact. Usually, Echenoz will tell a race story by mentioning that the race has started, and is going on for a while, and then: victory. Once in a while, of course, Émile loses, but that's a matter of fact as well, and summed up in equally few words. One would be the more inclined to accept this terseness if there were some philosophy or poetry being transacted in the rest of the narrative, but there's little going on outside these terse little sport stories. What is this novel about?

Echenoz's Émile is a man who "veut toujours savoir jusq'où [always wants to know how far]" (24) – specifically, how far he can push his own abilities. Physically, he seems to be "un type comme tout le monde [a guy like anybody else]" (53). There is nothing special about his heart or his lungs, but "il a sans doute su discipliner" those unremarkable organs: "he's certainly known how to discipline" them (53). And like anybody else, no matter how much discipline he achieves, he will get older and his records will be surpassed. One of Émile's constant themes is that time and youth have vanquished him – whereupon he usually goes out and vanquishes them both once again.

Selon un rituel proche de celui des adieux au music-hall, les stars de la course à pied ont le chic pour alterner les déclarations définitives, tragiques, et la reprise impromptue de l'entraînement voire l'établissement de nouvelles performances.

[Following a ritual like those of theatrical retirements, star runners have a flair for alternating final tragic pronouncements with spontaneous resumptions of rehearsals for new shows.] (120)
All shows cease for Émile after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Till then, he's been the most apolitical of good Communists. At one point, Echenoz follows him into a bathroom, where Émile has brought a sheaf of thin paper, the kind on which dissidents write letters and memoirs. Is he about to smuggle some words to the West? No, he wants to check the Coriolis effect, so that when he races in Brazil, he can see if the paper will swirl the other way down the drain.

But in 1968, he speaks out against the Soviets, with no more apparent forethought or motivation than he had earlier made offhand remarks about foreign cities. Of course, those remarks seemed to get him into terrible trouble, given the totalitarian paranoia of the Czechoslovak government; if you're going to be hung for a stray comment about Paris, you might as well be hung for a principled resistance to armed occupation. Émile becomes even more a folk hero than ever, gathering knots of approving fans wherever the government tries to internally exile him. And then the novel ends with him recanting his resistance and being restored to his star privileges.

If there's a moral or a judgment being made, I'm not seeing it. Echenoz's Zatopek is emblematic neither of heroism nor of evil. He's not a superman or an athletic genius; he remains resolutely "un type comme tout le monde." And I suppose you can't get any more emblematic than that.

Echenoz, Jean. Courir. Paris: Minuit, 2008.