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The Cowards (1980)

The Cowards (1980)

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3.93 of 5 Votes: 4
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091294675X (ISBN13: 9780912946757)
ecco press

About book The Cowards (1980)

We got to the bridge. I looked up at Irena’s window and hoped she was watching, but she wasn’t. Naturally. She should see me now. But no such luck. I could already imagine fighting the Germans off in the woods and Irena hiding down in the cellar or somewhere. The whole thing lost all its charm if Irena couldn’t see me. Why in hell was I letting myself in for this?This book could have a lot of titles, among them ‘The Confused’ or ‘Teenage Testosterone’ or ‘Life Goes On’. But ‘The Cowards’ is the subject at the heart of the chaos in this small Czech town at the very end of World War II.Having just finished reading Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945 I was looking here for the themes that Buruma explored, and they were present in the town of Kostelec in spades. But murkier, all mixed up together, harder to define.Because Kostelec is still in play. The Germans haven’t totally left, the Communists are sort of already here, there might be a Czech revolution. And while the city fathers who collaborated with the Nazis scurry to leave town, the local dignitaries who only ‘cooperated’ because they have always done what is necessary to maintain the civis talk revolution while keeping people from shooting so the Germans can leave quietly. Not so Kostelec’s subterranean Communists—just one black midnight scene makes it obvious that the local ‘democratic’ amateurs are clueless about what awaits them when the Soviet ‘liberators’ roll into town.Only when some Germans decide they aren’t going to give up so quietly it becomes clear that the meager weapons the Kostelec civilians have secured are laughable compared to tanks and bombers. Events seesaw back and forth, with periodic comic scenes of citizens breaking out Czech then Russian flags, one after another, and then withdrawing them quickly as armies and rumors surge back and forth through town. Not at all funny is the gruesome revenge taken on captured SS men, meted out by citizens whose wartime chumminess with the Nazis wouldn’t stand up to much inspection.And in between the shooting, Skvorecky illustrates more of Buruma’s themes. Vast numbers of prisoners of war and displaced gypsies and concentration camp victims, released from captivity, swarm through town needing food and beds. Danny appoints himself provisioner to a squad of Englishmen who have been POWs for five years, scattering them among the homes of lonely middle class women. People are so eager to celebrate peace that they repeatedly start fetes that are broken up by another battle.But I think that much of Skvorecky’s interest lies in showing that war is so absurd and events so beyond the ability of civilians to learn or comprehend that they deal with it by either doing whatever it takes to keep life stable (as adults) or remaining immersed in their personal worlds (as children). The town leaders are cowards, talking revolution and pompously supervising the equivalent of boy scout patrols in the eye of the storm, then scurrying for cover the moment shooting starts—they don’t want to attack either Germans or Communists in case it might result in a local citizen getting killed. In a sense they are realistic, because amateurs haven’t a chance against real soldiers. Except that a few heroic acts show that an amateur can make a difference. The only effective resistance to either invader comes from renegades acting on their own. Skvorecky’s contempt for the burghers is moderated by his recognition that they are too foolish to expect better of. It’s just clear that the self-satisfied bourgeois accommodators are doomed with the immanent Russian ‘liberation’. The story takes place over eight days, beginning and ending with teenage jazz band rehearsals. In between the young, saxaphonist narrator Danny has been enrolled in the local militia. He has seen incompetence, duplicity, death, chaos, evil, revenge, class conflict, and has participated in two battles. But as a teenager, sex and music are all that really matter to him at every moment in which his life is not in immediate danger.And yet he is vaguely aware that his middle class life is about to end. That things will be different. He can’t anticipate how badly it will turn out, so he is just a little melancholy; he thinks music will be all he needs. Music and a girl, in Prague.Skvorecky is absolutely real in Danny’s endless looping daydreams of obsession with one girl after another, but one in particular, with whom he hasn’t a chance of success. And his instantaneous flip-flops between cowardice and bravery, not for country but for sexual bravado. His contempt for the tactical bumbling of the pseudo militia leaders while missing their overall political naivety. Skvorecky masters the freedom and physical pleasure that playing jazz brought to these teenagers, akin to sexual pleasure but soulful. They can master their instruments, but not the women or the world around them.I got up, gravely raised my sax to my lips and sobbed out a melody, an improvisation in honour of victory and the end of the war, in honour of this town and all its pretty girls, and in honour of a great, abysmal, eternal, foolish, lovely love. And I sobbed about everything, about my own life, about the SS men they’d executed and about poor Hrob, about Irena who didn’t understand…about our band which wouldn’t even get together like this again…and I raised my glittering saxophone to face it and sang and spoke to that life out of its gilded throat, telling it that I’d accept it, that I’d accept everything that came my way because that was all I could do…

(Czech edition)I stalled on this book for a long time. I think it fell between stools since I wasn't quite reading it purely for pleasure (I started out reading the Czech and English translation beside each other to see exactly what tack the translator had taken in dealing with the various ways the two languages differ), and neither was I reading it for an particular project I was working on. It tended consistently to lose out to other books I was reading at the time, both Czech and English. For that reason I can't easily judge it.What I would say that it is one of those books that will stay with me for a long time, though it was pretty consistently put-downable. This is not such an unenviable category as it might sound. If we are to run with the divide of good bad books and bad good books, then we can agree that the bad good book is one which attempts to take on themes with some literary and philosophical heft and one which fails on its own terms, while also failing on the terms of the good bad book, that is, readability, pace, having a story that pulls you in and has you identifying with the characters and their struggles. But there are good good books which fail to some degree in terms of the story telling punch of the best of the bad books, but which nonetheless cover the bases of the literary terrain, and stay with you for that, even if they don't tempt you back over and over as, to use one of Orwell's cases, a good Sherlock Holmes story might.Skvorecky's Danny Smiricky novels and stories are autobiographical, and they read as being verbatim memories. Literary dialogue, and perhaps still more literary stream of consciousness passages, tend to be selective, distilled. Dialogue we remember as being the most realistic is often, if we read it closely, the most stripped down, having been ridded of the many redundancies of speech. In The Cowards, we come to know Danny's thoughts very closely. We come to know him very well, because we live in his thoughts. His thoughts resemble our own in all their muddle and repetition. If we hear him mention Irena in a swimsuit once, we hear it a hundred times. If we hear him talk about how silly she is but that it doesn't matter, or how he loves her, but then again, he couldn't love anybody, we hear it again and again.Danny is an ordinary young lad, romantically inclined, and possessed by a passion for jazz. His second passion, for Irena, is more ambivalent, intermittent, but equally ever-present. He is caught up in a unique and dangerous period of history, in the end of the Nazi Protectorate of Czechoslovakia. We might have some presumptions of what this does, or should mean. We might be right in some ways. In others less so. For Danny, much of life and most of his thoughts continue to relate to his two passions. Still, we are to inhabit his head and hear his thoughts as he involves himself as deeply as he is able, in some of the most significant events of the history of Europe.Even if I often felt that these events were evoked in passages so stunningly real that I should have been drawn back to the book much more often than I in fact was, many of them will stay with me. Similarly, though I was regularly riled by Danny and the repetitive nature of his thoughts, I associated with many of them, both in terms of their being a realistic depiction of how I used to think when I was a younger man than I am now, and, how I sometimes still feel now. Ultimately, if Britain or Prague or wherever I was living at the time were to be invaded and I were to be a witness or an actor in the events that unfolded, I know many of my thoughts would revolve around my own few passions in the same way as do Danny's here, and that the invasion force would struggle to take my attention. That's why it's a good good book. I'm just glad it will stay with me long enough that I won't need to reread it any time soon.

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Oh well, it seems like after being done with Czechoslovakia as seen by Marius S. I had to go straight to a Czech novel wrote by an author mentioned several times in Gottland.But this is just a coincidence. For The Cowards was already with me for a few months.This novel is written in a very impulsive and passionate style with that sort of boyish impetuosity which is explained by the fact Skvorecky was only 24 when he delivered it. The fact that it took 12 years more for this novel to get published just in time for being immediately banned takes us back to what Czechoslovakia used to be: a country of obnoxious and obsessive censorship.Quoting Gottland this was a nation ?where planes cannot fall down?.And perhaps reassured by the fact that a plane couldn't fall over Prague, Josef Skvorecky himself fled to Canada in the early 1970s leaving his homecountry behind. This decision he took was not an act of cowardice but in fact quite the opposite. While abroad, Skvorecky became a publisher of Czechoslovakian books banned by the communit regime and an opinion leader for all the Czech and Slovakian dissidents and ex-pats. He kept on writing novels too.That said, who are The Cowards here?Not the main narrator, the youngster Danny Smi?ick? and his friends playing in a jazz band and dreaming of New Orleans rather than Prague. Jazz music and Satchmo Armstrong for them may certainly look like mere escapism from the daily trouble of a Nazi occupation but are also a sort of moral and cultural resistance to any restriction given by the occupants.Danny and his band are waiting for something to happen in their sleepy Bohemian town, but at the same time they wish to take part in that something which many around them call "the Revolution".Unfortunately, Danny & company are stepped over by history and politics, despite themselves.Perhaps the cowards are the German forces running away from Bohemia when hearing about the Russians advancing from eastern front?Or maybe these cowards are the local "revolutionary people" jumping out of the frying pan to fall into fire without even noticing it? And what about the Russians looting a whole country that addressed them as liberators?Personally, I think that Skvorecky left this question unanswered on purpose. As for him, the Nazi occupation, the "socialist" liberation and the institution of a communist regime are all farce wrapped up in different flags, uniforms and anthems.The reason why it took me that long to review this book is very easy:it was surprisingly hard reaching the end of The Cowards. And I cannot really say why it took that long as this novel deals with topics I was interested in.It could be that The Cowards insists a bit too much on dialogues among its characters rather than going straight to the point and this led me to get distracted quite often.Borrowing a jazzy metaphor, I would say that Skvorecky played a notable jam session of a book, but could have made it even better with less solos from its favourite instruments.Nevertheless, this novel deserves to be recorded. And I will come back to its tracks.
¡ªLorenzo Berardi

?kvoreck? zjevn¨§ nen¨ª m?m ?¨¢lkem ?aje. Nebavilo m¨§ to ?¨ªst, i kdy? to nebylo tak hrozn¨¦, jak jsem se b¨¢la. P¨¢r sc¨¦n bylo fajn (nejak?n¨§j?¨ª sc¨¦na p?edposledn¨ª den, ubytov¨¢v¨¢n¨ª Angli?an?, n¨§kter¨¦ civiln¨ª momenty s Dannyho sle?nami), n¨§co m¨§ docela vt¨¢hlo do knihy. Ale jako celek nic pro m¨§. Nev¨ªm pro?, proud my?lenek mi v¨§t?inou nevad¨ª. Mo?n¨¢ mi nesedly postavy (p?itom Danny byl docela fajn a P¨¢pen/Benno taky)? Styl vypr¨¢v¨§n¨ª? T¨¦ma? Fakt nev¨ªm. Rozhodn¨§ se mi ale do dal?¨ªch ?kvoreck¨¦ho pr¨®z zrovna dvakr¨¢t nechce.Trochu m¨§ nicm¨¦n¨§ uklidnilo, kdy? mi p¨¢r holek ze t?e?¨¢ku v?era na semin¨¢?i potvrdilo, ?e se jim Zbab¨§lci taky nel¨ªbili. Aspo¨¾ nejsem ¨²pln¨§ divn¨¢ :DAle co ?kvoreck¨¦mu odpustit nem??u je fakt, ?e nikde nen¨ª ?¨¢dn? p?eklad cizojazy?n?ch pas¨¢?¨ª.

In The Cowards, Skovrecky's first novel, his 20-year-old alter ego Danny Smiricky delivers a stream of consciousness account of the last week of WWII in a small town in Bohemia near the German border. Fittingly for one his age, Danny mostly obsesses about jazz and girls, with enthusiasm for both and a fair dollop of self-pity regarding his luck with the latter, but the larger fate of the people in his town and Europe as a whole intrudes as the week progresses and the front draws nearer to the town. Danny's story is alternatingly funny, pathetic, horrifying, sad, and exuberant, and while Skvorecky's prose is not as fine here as it would become by the Sixties, it raises important questions about bravery and cowardice and what is most valuable in life in the face of potential destruction.

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