Zuzana's Breath

Jakuba Katalpa

Jakuba Katalpa: Zuzana's Breath

Original title: Zuzanin dech

Genre: novel


Host, 2020

ISBN: 978-80-275-0241-7

Pages: 309

Foreign editions:

Macedonian (Antolog, 2021, Donka Rous), Slovak (Ikar, 2022, Ester Demjanová), Croatian (Hena Com, 2022, Emilio Nuić), German (Balaena, 2023, Kathrin Janka), Serbian (Treći trg, 2024, Uroš Nikolić)

Rights sold to:

Poland (Stara Szkoła)


All the things that keep a person alive…


There are three of them. When they are children, the world is in balance. Later, everything changes. She loves one of the others. Both the others love her.

Zuzana Liebeskindová’s father owns a sugar refinery. She has a care-free existence, wanting for nothing and surrounded by love. Strands of burnt sugar drift about in the air. In the small town of Holašovice, the 1930s is a time of sweetness. 

Zuzana enters adolescence during the German occupation. Because of her Jewish origins, her fate is predetermined: transport, concentration camp.

Although Zuzana’s friends Hanuš and Jan both remain in Holašovice, their paths diverge. The war ends and Zuzana returns from the concentration camp, to the discovery that she has lost even more than she thought. After all she has been through, is she still capable of love? And does she even have any choice in the matter?

This dramatic tale does not examine questions of guilt and punishment, nor the debt demanded by great moments in history. With subtlety and surgical precision, Jakuba Katalpa examines what lies beneath the surface. Without passing judgement, she describes and records with great sensitivity those things that allow a person to go on.

Read extracts in English here:


Jewish Fiction .net


"Following her novel Germans /Němci, Jakuba Katalpa has once again set off for the era of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. The bar is still set high.  (…)
Jakuba Katalpa’s readers have now got used to her totally precise elaboration of her literary work, so it would be something of a surprise if her next book was written anything less than excellently.  (…)

As we are now accustomed with this author, the language of her novel is physical to the point of palpability and does not avoid carnality.

Against the historical backdrop, stories that are anything from confidential to intimate are told here, and their characters ultimately speak for themselves.

Zuzana, Jan, Hanuš. Persecution, collaboration, resistance. Love, friendship, treachery. Childhood, growing up, maturity.  Prewar, wartime and postwar. The book follows the “rule of three”, which provides the rhythm and the order. (…)

There is a difficulty with Zuzana’s Breath as there is with everything that is so good it does not need to be commented upon. And there is an even greater “difficulty” in the fact that I did not expect anything less from Jakuba Katalpa. The author has succeeded in writing another great novel."  

Lucie Trávníčková, Deník N


"Writing stories set in 20th century Czech history is not a lottery these days but a guaranteed recipe for success, even if novels ”cooked up” in this way are not always key works of Czech literature, often gliding over the surface and resonating too much with the predominant journalistic narrative... In contrast, Jakuba Katalpa’s  latest novel Zuzana’s Breath shows proof of an ability to find the neglected, the complex and the incomprehensible.  This story of Zuzana Liebeskind, daughter of a Jewish sugar refinery owner, and her two friends  Jan and Hanuš, who she is with every day, sharing her childhood and maturation with them and in one case her adulthood too, as if new  elevation points were being filled in on the old ground plan, particularly a more critical typification  of attitudes during the occupation and a much more open treatment of “life” in  Auschwitz and then the painful, unanticipated and for some, unwanted return."

Jakub Šofar, Salon, Právo


"In her austere, pithy but sensitive language, Jakuba Katalpa tells a story that is typical of our modern-era history and Czech character.  She does not make judgements, but merely describes. A strong testimony, with believable characters, on the ever-inflamed  Jewish question and the impossibility of making a choice."

Jana Podskalská, Deník


"For a second time, writer Jakuba Katalpa has gone for ordinary human stories distorted by the cruelty of History with a capital H, but in many respects  the novel Zuzana’s Breath is different. It stands out because it does not rely on the seemingly exhausted subject of the Holocaust. The author has gone much further.  
(…) The way Jakuba Katalpa has taken this up is anything but trivial. She grabs the readers and does not let them go.  (…) However, the author definitely does not base the entire novel on the subject of the Holocaust and does not try to shock the reader with something that thousands of writers before her have already written about, but she does recall how much depended on what went on before and after the concentration camp. The transformation of an individual into an entirely different person.


Katalpa sweeps her readers along even in those passages where not much is actually going on, with her austere but polished style.  She likes to narrate in short, simple sentences and only occasionally wields more complex clauses, but even then they form very stark and sober sentences. She describes painful events in a very depersonalized style, while grabbing the reader and not letting go, digging down deep beneath the skin.  Zuzana suffers one blow of fate after another, until there is nothing left for her to do but breathe in and hold on, so breathe in, out, in, out..."

Lenka Jančarová, Lidové noviny


"The most important prose attributes include narration through the experience of the body, which perceives and records much more rapidly than consciousness and which by necessity is always found in a concrete – historical, gender etc – context. Moreover, there is above all a certain “freshness” of style and an absence of any obvious judgements regarding the characters’ behaviour, thus leaving a lot left unsaid, and the readers have enough space for themselves.  The novel is still very readable, but it does not pander or slide into slickness."

Olga Słowik, Iliteratura


"The way the author has built up the story is notable. It is based on contrasts, certain symmetries and recurring motifs. (…)

The motifs of  (the titular) breath and blood float up to the surface at various points in the text, with different contexts and backdrops in each case. In some places their recurrence is actually horrific, and in some scenes they are like something out of a psychological horror story, but it is never just for effect or instant impact. It always relates to the entire story, its internal power and consistency.  And this is what makes a book by Katalpa an event. Zuzana’s Breath dissects topics that have perhaps been dissected a thousand times already, but in a way that seems like for the first time ever, with innocent surprise and a kind of sorcery, as well as a sense for the final distinction between good and evil, crime and punishment, hope and despair. 

Bottom line: a tip for book of the year."

Radim Kopáč, MF DNES

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