The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký.

The Cowards (Zbabělci) is the second novel of the Czech-Canadian writer Josef Škvorecký, written around 1948-49, but not published until ten years later in 1958. The novel takes place in just a week: 4th - 11th May 1945 and is set in Kostelec, a fictional town based on Náchod, the north-eastern part of what was once Bohemia in the Hradec Králové Region of what is now the Czech Republic. At the start of the novel the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia and had since before the start of World War II. A day before the start of the novel the U.S. Army under George S. Patton entered Pilsen (the west of the Czech Republic) and on the 9th May, half way through the novel, the Soviet Red Army troops entered Prague.

The Cowards is narrated by a young man, Danny Smiřický, Škvorecký's alter-ego. It's a period of transition for both the character and the country, still occupied by Germans but not quite, almost liberated by the Americans and Russians but not quite, and on the brink of an uprising (but, again, not quite). We see Danny and his friends, typical young lads in an untypical setting. They're members of a jazz band (Danny plays the saxophone) and share a deep love of music and pretty girls. Danny is hopelessly in love with Irena, who in turn is in love with Zdenek. In that sense, this is a fairly simple novel: unrequited love, music, and friendship, but it is the circumstances that make it so compelling. We move from the familiar and everyday scenarios, waking up, pursuing hobbies, meeting friends, and contemplating love interests, whilst all the while society is in complete turmoil. The Germans still pose a threat during the Prague uprising (the attempt to liberate the city), there was the potential communist uprising by the Communist Party (Komunistická strana Československa or KSČ), and British, American, and Russian soldiers marched through their town. Danny and his friends indulged in fantasies of heroism, Danny especially imagining how much it would impress Irena, and conversation changes from music, encounters with Nazis (including one chilling description of a beautiful young woman being repulsed by non-Aryans), and concentration camps. In Škvorecký's novel we see a snapshot both of an important historical era of the Czech Republic and of the youth maturing in such a tumultuous time. It's an excellent novel, and I'm now on the look out for more works by Škvorecký.

Comments

  1. i've read "The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka"... short stories about cases in the Sherlockian vein with an interesting detective; as noted above, simple but clever at the same time... i've also got but haven't read yet: "The Tenor Saxophonist's Story" and "The Bass Saxophone" . i should imagine Svorecky is a musician, maybe a saxophone player? just a guess...haha the stories were a welcome change from ordinary lit(if there is such a thing)and i intend to read them again after a while...

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    1. I'll check all of those out - definitely eager to read more. It was quite unlike anything I've ever read, but I've read so little post 1950 works I didn't want to comment on that in the post :)

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