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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…

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