Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2022

The Cowards, by Josef Škvorecký, translated by Jeanne Němcová

Imagine the egocentrism of Holden Caulfield in a world where an adolescent impulse can have devastating consequences… and you have some idea of the genuine peril portrayed by Czech author Josef Škvorecký in his 1958 novel The Cowards set in a small town in Czechoslovakia during the chaos of the German retreat and the Russian advance.  His character Danny is preoccupied by girls, jazz and judgmental opinions about the adults in his society, and, fuelled by rumours and naïve heroics from the local administration, his ambition to impress the girl of his dreams leads him into recklessness.  It’s an extraordinary book.

Josef Škvorecký (1924-2012) grew up in Czechoslovakia when it was a sovereign state, was a slave labourer for two years under the German Occupation, and then became a teacher, editor and translator when Czechoslovakia was part of the Eastern Bloc.  He came to the attention of the Soviet authorities with the publication of The End of the Nylon Age (1956) and The Cowards (1958) but despite bans kept writing until forced to flee when the 1968 Prague Spring culminated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In Canada, he and his wife Zdena Salivarová, founded 68 Publishers which published banned Czech and Slovak books by dissident writers. He himself was a prolific author, winning multiple awards and a nomination for the Nobel in 1982.  Although he wrote in Czech, most of his books are available in English.

Although it was published after The End of the Nylon Age, The Cowards was Škvorecký’s first book and it features themes that (according to Wikipedia) recur in his later works. One of the things the Soviets didn’t like was his innovative prose style which mimics mid-century American jazz.  It’s open-ended and improvisational, and it riffs on certain motifs the way that jazz does.  Danny (who plays tenor sax) is besotted with jazz.  He and his adolescent pals know all the jazz standards, and the novel, which takes place over the course of six days in May 1945, is book-ended with a band rehearsal as prelude to events on Friday May 4th, 1945, and their ‘liberation’ concert in the town square that meets with disapproval from the town worthies on the following Thursday. Škvorecký is a genius at evoking the sounds and rhythm of jazz.

Fonda rapped four times on the top of Winter’s upright piano and we began to play.  Lexa wailed shrilly in the highest register of his clarinet, Venca sank down to the explosive depths of his trombone to build up the bass, and I was playing around with some fancy little flourishes in the middle range, while Benno came out above us with his rough, dirty, sobbing tones that sounded like they came from heaven. (p.17)

Despite his preoccupations, Danny is aware of current events.  He knows the fate of the Jewish cantor who he used to visit under the radar when it was dangerous to have Jewish associates; he’s had to do forced labour in the local Messerschmidt factory; and one of the members of his band has spent time in a concentration camp newly liberated.  While he is playing, Danny muses on his fruitless love for Irena and on the beauty of the Queen of Würtemberg, one of many big shots who’d come from all over the Reich to Kostelec and now things were closing in on them from all sides and there they sat in their plush upholstered rooms like in a trap. But while he hears rumours of an impending revolution and alternately believes and disbelieves them, he is bored.  The front is so far away that it can only be heard in the distance, and he doesn’t think there will be much resistance from the demoralised Germans anyway.  His naïveté is matched only by his confidence that he knows it all.

The silence was like before a storm.  But maybe that was because I knew what was probably going to happen.  Otherwise it was an ordinary kind of silence.  We went past Dr Stras’s villa where German officers were quartered.  The main gate was open: the Germans had probably left.  It’s always like that.  The big brass clears out leaving the poor soldiers holding the bag. They’d made a field hospital out of the hotel on the square and there the wounded lay or hobbled around, sick and full of lice and pus.  But Herr Regierungskommissar Kühl wasn’t around any more.  He’d had a five-roomed apartment in the hotel until not long ago.  And now God knows where he was.  He left the whole job up in the air.  The town was without a ruling military commander.  (p.32)

Danny is thrilled, however, when after six years of German Occupation, the first Czech flag flutters from a window.  It’s premature, however, but Danny isn’t intimidated by the arrival of some Hitler Youth with oversized uniforms and trembling guns.  Recklessly trying to impress Irena, he stares them down, only to be confronted by some German officers determined to maintain discipline and order to the end.  He is marched off towards likely execution, only to be saved by skilful negotiations that are taking place to allow an orderly retreat (rather than the usual ‘scorched earth’ policy).

When there is an influx of liberated POWs along with a pitiful remnant of Jews, a local militia is formed by the town administration to keep order.  The lads (who’ve had to hand in any weapons they’ve souvenired) are conscripted into this farcical military force to patrol the streets.  They are hot, tired and bored (and their mothers fuss over them missing their lunches.) Once again flags flutter from windows, but this time they are red in anticipation of the Russian advance, though again, they are premature. The SS are on the way, both ahead of and behind the Soviets, with machine guns, artillery, and tanks.  Škvorecký creates heart-stopping tension when the lads form their own group of partisans, taking on German tanks and the SS in a pitched battle on the bridge.

The narration in Danny’s voice riffs on boredom, adolescent lust, excitement, terror and meditations on events.  Always conscious of his image, he is nonetheless semi-heroic in his efforts to rise to the occasion, helping with translation, housing the POWS, guiding the starving Jewish women to the cafeteria and helping to deal with the dead and wounded.  OTOH he spends a lot of time thinking about his desire for Irena’s boyfriend to be killed.

But he also considers his own racism, recognising that he finds it easier to bond with the English POWS than the Mongolian ones from the Soviet army.  He knows he’s absorbed some of the Nazi ideology, still subconsciously parroting the racial lines that Goebbels had drummed into us. Towards the end of the novel, when he witnesses the captured SS being tortured prior to execution, he examines the complexities of revenge in a long passage about the complicit townspeople:

I didn’t feel like talking about it. We went over to the gate.  I remembered those two brothers that guy had showed me last night at the brewery.  With their eyes gouged out.  The bastards, I said to myself.  Except the ones that did it had probably cleared out and these others were paying for it.  What the hell, maybe they have the same sort of thing on their consciences, too, but how could you know for sure?  And how could you tell whether they had on their consciences what Mr Mozol and the others here were loading up on their own right now? I knew a few people who had plenty on theirs.  Regierungskommissar Kühl.  How he bellowed at the Jews when they were standing in line in front of the station, waiting to be taken off.  He’d never been sent off to the front. Ein alter Mitkämpfer. [An old comrade], he’d been a member of the Nazi Party since 1928. Then there was that bastard Staukelmann who’d turned in Lexa’s father, who was later shot because that was the easiest way to get hold of Lexa’s father’s apartment. And then later, when we already had our band and we donated the proceeds of two concerts to Lexa’s mother, Staukelmann informed about that, too, because informing had become a habit with him by then, and the only reason nothing came of that was because Dr Sabata had bribed some big wheel from the Gestapo with a case or two of slivovitz. Or Zieglosser, head of the personnel department at Metal, who used to pad around the factory picking out girls and then he’d have them called to his office and if they didn’t come across, they’d be shipped off to the Reich.  Like that seamstress Bozka I’d worked with.  God knows whether she’d ever get back alive.  The bastard.  And all of them cleared out in time.  That kind always did.  And then when you’d forgotten all about them, they’d turn up again and in the meantime somebody else had to pay for what they’d done. Maybe these SS guys they were killing now hadn’t been half as bad as Kühl and Staukelmann and Zieglosser had been.  (p.360-1)

Not so naïve after all…

Author: Josef Škvorecký
Title: The Cowards (Zbabělci )
Translated from the Czech by Jeanne Němcová
Cover art by Wendy Hoile
Publisher: King Penguin, Penguin Books, 1985, first published 1958.
ISBN: 0140076689, pbk., 416 pages
Source: personal library, price sticker is dated 1985.  Goodreads’ horrible new format has removed the ‘date added to database’ so I don’t really know how long I’ve had it for.


Responses

  1. This sounds really interesting Lisa …. And good to read as well. But it’s long!

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    • Yes, it is. And a bit of a struggle to read because I have eye trouble again. A common complication of cataract surgery, but hmmm, not so common you get warned about it. It is rightly called ‘opacification’ because my RH eye is increasingly opaque, it’s like looking at things through sheets of Gladwrap, and the struggle to focus is giving me mighty headaches. My optometrist rang around everywhere to arrange the laser surgery which will hopefully fix it, but I can’t get in anywhere till November.
      In the meantime, I can only read in short bursts, and I’m writing on the computer with the screen magnified so that I can see what I’ve written. Which is not, haha, helping my poor proofreading skills, please do alert me to my typos when you see them!

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      • Oh no poor you. Cataract surgery is brilliant for most people but I know a couple for whom it hasn’t been perfect. Maybe you should give your eyes a rest …. Listen to music!

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        • I may be reduced to that by the time November rolls around…

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          • Just take care of your health … headaches are not good, and straining to see is tiring

            Liked by 1 person

      • PS Haven’t seen typos but will do.

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  2. It sounds great and very similar to what happened in France at the same time.
    I’d never heard of this writer, so thanks!

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    • I suppose because films can’t show everything and they have to make events seem dramatic, we tend to get the impression that the front moves in a predictable way. But my mother was in an internment camp when the front was in shifting hands… twice over it was liberated, and then taken back in enemy hands, and there was no food, water or medicine and she was lucky to survive it.

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  3. So interesting, Lisa. I owned this once but passed it on because I was convinced I’d never get to it. I wish I hadn’t now…. (Hope the eye is sorted soon too)

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    • Oh no, what a pity!
      But it happens, of course… I’ve lost count of the times I’ve recycled a book and then it goes on to feature in the awards.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve not read much Skvorecky though I do like his Lieutenant Boruvka detective stories. I’ve got a copy of this from when it was published as a Central European Classic by Penguin – I’m now intrigued to read it.

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    • Oh, I think you are just the reader for it!

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  5. I was planning to read this one this year (if I can get hold of a copy, which isn’t going to be all that easy). I’m especially intrigued by the May 1945 timing of the plot. I’ve read about other Central European novels taking place at the same time (Ashes and Diamonds, for instance), and would be quite tempted to do a compare-and-contrast type of exercise.
    I hope you get a satisfactory long-term solution for your eyes sooner rather than later.

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