Friday, 13 January 2012

Joseph Škvorecký, Czech Writer and Publisher

One month after the death of Vaclav Havel, his fellow dissident writer and publisher, Joseph Škvorecký, has also died. Škvorecký fled to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and set up 68 Publishers which, for the next twenty years published dissident Czech and Slovak writing banned in his own country.

Last year, WWJ published a review of his novel, The Cowards. It's republished here, as a tribute to a fabulous writer who should be much more widely read.

We were all sitting over at the Port Arthur and Benno said, ‘Well, it looks like the revolution’s been postponed for a while.’
‘Yes,’ I said and stuck the reed in my mouth. ‘For technical reasons, right?’

I happened to have been searching out Czech literature written behind the Iron Curtain recently, which is how I stumbled across The Cowards.

Set in the final week of the Second World War, The Cowards tells the story of Danny, saxophonist in the best jazz band in Czechoslovakia. Danny has grown up in the small town of Kostalek, near the border with Germany. For most of the war, the town has been under Nazi occupation. But now the occupying forces are on their way out, the SS are retreating from the Eastern Front, the Red Army is advancing and everyone in the town is talking about Revolution.

Danny quite fancies the idea of being a revolutionary hero – provided it means he can persuade the elusive Irena to go to bed with him. The reality is something else again. Conscription, tedious military drills, pointless patrols – all this just gets in the way of making music.

Throughout the book, Danny fantasises about the girl he will meet in Prague, the one who will make him forget even Irena – something which lends a touching note to Škvorecký’s dedication, ‘To the Girl I Met in Prague’.

The book is a wonderful evocation of what it is like to be a teenager - self-obsessed, image conscious, writhing with hormones and muddled ideals. When all that comes hard up against the brutal realities of War, it’s as if Holden Caulfield has walked into the pages of Catch 22.

Jeanne Nĕmcova’s translation cleverly captures the way these kids have modelled themselves on the films and music of Britain and America. When the British POW’s leave on the train, Danny is half aware that his hopes are leaving with them – but we know better than he what his future holds.

Written in 1948, when Škvorecký was 24, The Cowards was published ten years later, when it was immediately banned by the Communist authorities, who couldn’t tolerate Danny’s irreverent attitude to the sacred concept of Revolution. Škvorecký left Czechoslovakia after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968 and settled in Canada. There he set up 68 Publishers, which continued to publish banned Czech and Slovak literature until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Funny, moving and brutally real, this is a book that deserves to be much better known in the West.

Catriona Troth

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