Exploding Realities: Jáchym Topol’s Use of Language in Sestra

Karin Beck, Columbia University

Jáchym Topol’s novel Sestra was published in 1994, four years after the Velvet Revolution. The novel depicts this revolution as the Explosion of Time. However, not only time, but reality itself is explosive in the novel. The old order is shattered and a new one emerges from the rearranged broken pieces. The language of Sestra reflects Topol’s concept of this new reality. I argue that the use of language in the novel represents the tension between the postmodern concept of reality as a continuously changing textual construction and the idea of an independent reality.

The language of Sestra is explosive. A polyphonic and dialogic use of different languages, dialects, and linguistic codes marks the novel. Although colloquial Czech has been traditionally used by Czech writers, Topol’s use of heterogeneous linguistic elements is much more radical: Sestra draws from the whole range of the Czech language from Standard Czech to historical argot. Furthermore, it combines these language varieties with elements of foreign languages. Borders between languages become blurred, and the words of different languages are creatively recombined. I will use the example of an invented language called “Kanacky,” the idiom of a group of foreigners in Berlin, to illustrate the process of language construction in Sestra. Kanacky is in a permanent process of creation and change and thus represents the postmodern aspect of Sestra. It shows reality as a permanently changing construction.

The explosive use of languages in the novel is contrasted with the sparing use of expressions that the narrator calls “old words.” These are words such as the biblical expressions “humble” and “vale of tears” or the phrase “I love you.” Sestra tries to uncover their original meaning that has been buried under their clichéd everyday use. I explore the role of the “old words” in the novel using the example of the narrator’s search for an address to God: He avoids the Standard Czech term (Bůh) and instead uses either its archaic form (Bog) or slang expressions (such as Starej Krvak ‘Old Bloodhound’). The narrator’s preoccupation with “old words” and their true meaning symbolizes his search for a reality outside of human construction.

In my paper, I show how the juxtaposition of “old words” with the experimental new language creates a tension that is central for Sestra. The world of Sestra emerges between two poles: the postmodern concept of reality as nothing but a text, on the one hand, and the idea of an extra-textual reality, on the other. Unlike other postmodern novels, Sestra presents a concept of reality where text is not everything.