A quarter of a million troops from the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria marched into Czechoslovakia 50 years ago this month. The message and results were clear: No loosening of the Soviet Union’s grip on any of its satellite states behind the Iron Curtain. Czechoslovakia could keep its self-styled “Socialism with a human face” only if Soviet soldiers remained stationed there. Political and cultural activities would be curbed, as would economic ties with the West.
Before the occupation, thanks to a certain easing of political interference, the Czechs had been producing remarkable literature. The novelists Josef Škvorecký and Milan Kundera, the playwrights Ivan Klíma and Václav Havel, and the poet Miroslav Holub were known globally. Their fame skyrocketed after the Soviet takeover, with Škvorecký and Kundera emigrating, and Havel enjoying the ultimate turnaround by later becoming the Czech Republic’s first president once the country gained independence.
Looking back, perhaps the most fascinating of all the work made by those great writers is Škvorecký’s 1958 novel, The Cowards. Although set in 1945, it looked forward to the sort of brave new world that its young characters hoped to live in, if not necessarily bring about. In that, it is almost a blueprint for the ambitions of youth living in societies on the brink of change. That its author was 24 when he wrote it lends it an unmistakable authenticity.
The book begins very precisely on Friday, 4 May 1945, in the dying days of World War II. In the small town of Kostelec, we meet our hero Danny, who is enjoying the feel of the bamboo reed of his tenor sax. He reflects that when you play, the reed “… reverberates inside your skull, good and solid and rounded and high class. It’s a great feeling, playing a tenor sax”.
And it’s a great joy reading a book where being a jazz partisan is as revolutionary as being a partisan fighting Nazi occupiers. The band gathers at the Port Arthur club, with Danny (sax), Benno (trumpet), Jindra (bass), Lexa (clarinet), Venca (trombone) and Winter (piano). Directed by their leader Fonda, “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.”
A little earlier we have learnt, almost casually, that Benno has not lost “his tone while he was in the concentration camp”. We’re told, too, that “the revolution’s been postponed for a while”. The reason, as offered by Danny, reed in mouth: “For technical reasons, right?” It is the start of a riff that runs throughout the novel: bourgeois boys making fun of their bourgeois fathers, deriding the bourgeois revolution waiting to happen. That one revolts against the very circumstances that enable such a revolt is nothing new, but in Škvorecký’s hands the ironies are doubly rich.
Kostelec’s old guard tiptoe around the retreating Nazis and the advancing Red Army. It has neither the will to hurry the former out nor wholly welcome the latter in. Somewhere between the departure of the Germans and the arrival of the Soviets lies salvation, a new beginning, a revolution. But that “revolution” is not much more than a return to the state of things before all the invasions and occupations of their Bohemian town.
Youth in revolt
The town’s youth have other ideas about their homeland and its revolution. Not for nothing does Škvorecký have as one of the novel’s three epigraphs a long paragraph by Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, about “pink-cheeked high school kids” and their jazz revolution in Chicago. It ends with a statement of their mission: “They wanted to blast every high-minded citizen clear out of his easy chair with their yard dog growls and gully-low howls.”
Škvorecký shows with wit and candour, but also with the rough mockery and immediacy of youth, that one generation’s revolution is another’s compromise. South Africans, struggling with how “1994” has turned out, will recognise the dilemmas he presents. We have had a bourgeois revolution where a more radical one was needed. We were allowed to keep our self-styled “liberation” only because global capitalism became more entrenched here.
But Danny, who is not a coward, provides hope. He is spirited, talented and afraid not of dying but of dying without having led a questioning life, without having “thought about the same things I’d always thought about, about girls and about jazz and about that girl I was going to meet in Prague”.