Set in a time of social chaos but published in an age of political orthodoxy, Czechoslovakia’s Communist government immediately banned Josef Škvorecký’s debut novel The Cowards on its publication in 1958. The book, having been written in 1948-1949, was eventually reissued with a preface, in which Škvorecký felt obliged to clarify the meaning of his politically charged coming of age story, telling his audience that central character Danny and his friends ‘do not insult the revolution, but mock the bourgeoisie play at making one’.
After epigraphs from Romain Rolland, Hemingway and jazz musician Milton ‘Mezz’ Mezzrow, The Cowards opens with the line, ‘Well, it looks like the revolution’s been postponed for a while’, immediately below a portentous date: Friday 4 May 1945. The book is set over the following week, each day given a chapter in which young Danny’s thoughts, desires and actions amidst the chaotic collapse of the German occupation of Prague are explored in considerable detail, without compromising the novel’s fundamental ambiguity.
Despite the surrounding chaos, however, teenager Danny’s main concerns are sex and music: his thinking about who will fill the power gap is coloured by his frustration that the opportunistic ‘heroism’ of those around him (particularly those worried about how they will be judged once the old order re-asserts itself) stops his jazz band rehearsing or performing. Because of this, the band is hardly mentioned after the opening pages – where it is established that trumpeter Benno has just escaped a concentration camp, and the discussion focuses on the factory workers’ self-interested riot that followed the Reich’s demise.
This sets the tone for an irreverent novel, in which Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, about a man who muddles through the First World War by playing the fool, is explicitly referenced twice: once by Benno, and once by a sergeant on guard against spoiling tactics. The characters are definitely anti-German, but unsure of whom to be for: Danny’s love of jazz informs his affinity for the Americans, but he never expects them to retain power in Czechoslovakia, and during the novel’s timeframe, is more concerned that the Germans may not leave than about the Russians seizing power.
The Germans’ reluctance to leave provides much of the novel’s rising tension, particularly as the maverick acts of ‘bravery’ continually threaten to destroy their carefully stage-managed exit strategy. One person’s crazed charge at the German Army, pulling back on the frontier, sparks a potential uprising, ultimately frustrated: Škvorecký holds the interest by constantly postponing their departure, and by demonstrating the complicated ethics that their continued presence necessitates. It emerges that Sabata saved Vahar’s father from the camp by drinking with the Gestapo; the reader is left to imagine what compromises this ‘heroism’ entailed.
The moral dilemmas within The Cowards are more complicated than the Soviets desired. Feelings frequently overshadow ideology, with many of Danny’s acts performed to impress Irena, who does not return his love. Danny remains convinced that he would rather live than die for his country, or communism, and he strongly suspects the motives of anyone saying otherwise. His feelings for Irena are circumstantial – Danny loves her ‘because there wasn’t anyone better’ – but he comes to hate her boyfriend, Zdenek, more than any army in Czechoslovakia, and when he joins the fight, it is because he is conscripted on an absurd technicality, and disarmed without seeing conflict.
Danny has no real way of knowing who is guilty – that is, whose actions can be excused given the circumstances and who willingly collaborated. However, he feels bad that others suffered more than him during the war, which provides the other motive for his futile acts of heroism. In one of Škvorecký’s strongest scenes, Danny, ‘acting like a movie hero’ (in what often feels like a highly cinematic novel) fires at a German tank, knowing that doing so presents little real danger. Immediately, Benno reproaches him for his stupidity, and Danny’s response is to consider how much more this would have impressed Irena. Eventually, the Soviets close the ‘farce’ (Danny notes that ‘this was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘comrade’ used seriously’, which cannot have impressed the censors) and impose their order onto Prague, but Danny’s final concerns remain his romantic frustrations and the possibility that his band will never play together again.
The Cowards is a realist, if not Socialist Realist novel, with Škvorecký’s dissection of the end of the war contrasting markedly with Karel Čapek’s formal exuberance in tracing its origins in War with the Newts. Deeply humanist, it prioritises emotion above stylistic innovation: at times, Škvorecký’s prose feels akin to Salinger’s in The Catcher in the Rye, if Holden Caulfield had something serious to worry about. An important moment in the line of Czech culture that ran from Švejk and Čapek to Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains and the flowering of Czech cinema in the Sixties, The Cowards remains a brilliantly detailed explication of the moral complexities of the war’s end, and its suppression a stark reminder of the circumstances that generated the Prague Spring, ten years after its publication.