Oh well, it seems like after being done with Czechoslovakia as seen by Marius S. I had to go straight to a Czech novel wrote by an author mentioned several times in Gottland.
But this is just a coincidence. For The Cowards was already with me for a few months.
This novel is written in a very impulsive and passionate style with that sort of boyish impetuosity which is explained by the fact Skvorecky was only 24 when he delivered it. The fact that it took 12 years more for this novel to get published just in time for being immediately banned takes us back to what Czechoslovakia used to be: a country of obnoxious and obsessive censorship.
Quoting Gottland this was a nation «where planes cannot fall down».
And perhaps reassured by the fact that a plane couldn't fall over Prague, Josef Skvorecky himself fled to Canada in the early 1970s leaving his homecountry behind. This decision he took was not an act of cowardice but in fact quite the opposite. While abroad, Skvorecky became a publisher of Czechoslovakian books banned by the communit regime and an opinion leader for all the Czech and Slovakian dissidents and ex-pats. He kept on writing novels too.
That said, who are The Cowards here?
Not the main narrator, the youngster Danny Smiřický and his friends playing in a jazz band and dreaming of New Orleans rather than Prague. Jazz music and Satchmo Armstrong for them may certainly look like mere escapism from the daily trouble of a Nazi occupation but are also a sort of moral and cultural resistance to any restriction given by the occupants.
Danny and his band are waiting for something to happen in their sleepy Bohemian town, but at the same time they wish to take part in that something which many around them call "the Revolution".
Unfortunately, Danny & company are stepped over by history and politics, despite themselves.
Perhaps the cowards are the German forces running away from Bohemia when hearing about the Russians advancing from eastern front?
Or maybe these cowards are the local "revolutionary people" jumping out of the frying pan to fall into fire without even noticing it? And what about the Russians looting a whole country that addressed them as liberators?
Personally, I think that Skvorecky left this question unanswered on purpose. As for him, the Nazi occupation, the "socialist" liberation and the institution of a communist regime are all farce wrapped up in different flags, uniforms and anthems.
The reason why it took me that long to review this book is very easy:
it was surprisingly hard reaching the end of The Cowards. And I cannot really say why it took that long as this novel deals with topics I was interested in.
It could be that The Cowards insists a bit too much on dialogues among its characters rather than going straight to the point and this led me to get distracted quite often.
Borrowing a jazzy metaphor, I would say that Skvorecky played a notable jam session of a book, but could have made it even better with less solos from its favourite instruments.
Nevertheless, this novel deserves to be recorded. And I will come back to its tracks.
I read this book in Italian. I was forced to.
Despite of my moderate efforts, my current Polish doesn't go very far. And no one thought to give this book a chance on the English speaking market.
Which is a shame.
Perhaps it's just the name of its author, Szczygiel (roughly pronounced Sheegyaooh).
Perhaps it's the title of the book, Gottland (no, it's not German).
On the whole, for an average British or American reader, I assume there seems to be very little to get from such obscure and tongue-twisting coordinates.
Which, once again, is a shame.
And if some brave English or American publisher will some day consider the possibility of translating this book, then comes the main topic of it: Czechoslovakia now split into Czech Republic and Slovakia. Which sounds like a further problem. At least for the likes of George W. Bush who took Slovakia for Slovenia and viceversa.
I mean, apparently there is not that much to say about this country, isn't it? Apart from explaining to the Bush family where this little forgotten corner of Central-Eastern Europe can be found on a map.
And unfortunately there are very little if no chances at all that Gottland will become a movie one day with, say, Leonardo Di Caprio performing Tomasz Bata, Natalie Portman putting herself in the shoes of Lida Baarova plus Vaclav Havel and Karel Gott starring as themselves.
That's why I read the Italian translation of Gottland. Because I couldn't wait.
For "Gottland" is what I don't hesitate to call a masterpiece.
And a little publisher named "Nottetempo" had a moment of commercial folly or misunderstood geniality a few years ago.
My girlfriend told me that Marius S. (I will call him like that) was the host of the Polish version of something similar to the David Letterman Show which doesn't explain why he got so much into Czech Republic, but it's nice to report here.
What Marius S. did with Gottland is amazing.
This book is gem of real stories coming from the country formerly known as Czechoslovakia covering the twentieth century with the interlude of two world wars, a nazi occupation and a communist dictatorship. The last one being the worst break on many accounts.
Reading Gottland one becomes eager to meet an actual, authentic Czech or Slovak person to check whether Marius S. got these people right. I suppose he did.
What I personally suggest is to either learn Polish or Italian, get this book and read it. I'm sure you will be surprised on how quick will be this process (once you learned one of the two above mentioned languages). And then I suggest you to start mentioning the term "Gottland" in your conversations.
You can refer to this book while talking about a wide range of subjects including cinema, monuments, architecture, taxi rides, literature, Prague, music, trials, Kafka, theater and... shoes.
Perhaps, little by little, someone who counts in the literary business of your country will hear the word "Gottland" being pronounced giving way to a further translation of this book. But learning Polish might be easier.
Ok, what we have here is a history book.
So let's introduce it with a fact: Tony Judt made it.
Who else could have been able to condensate sixty years of European history in 831 pages finding room enough to spend a whole paragraph on the likes of the football/soccer star David Beckham? ("an English player of moderate technical gifts but an unsurpassed talent for self-promotion" etc.).
And yet this book may be called huge, grand, impressive but not great. I would say that just like his compatriot Beckham, Judt got an unsurpassed talent for self-promotion but moderate technical gifts.
Am I too harsh? Perhaps. But please let's stick to facts.
First of all, "Postwar" would have needed a better editor. We all know how even the best player in the world is going nowhere without a good coach helping him in moderating his juvenile excesses, forcing mistakes and occasional selfishness. Regretfully enough, Tony Judt has not found here either his Alex Ferguson or his Red Auerbach.
You cannot publish a history book with such ambitious aims unchecking foreign terms and thus leaving behind so many reiterated typos. I will mention a few. Those of you who have a better knowledge of, say, German, Czech or Polish would surely find many others.
The Italian Communist Party was called Partito Comunista Italiano and not "Communista" (with two Ms) as "Postwar" shows around fifteen times.
While talking about Italian neorealism (not always apropos) I found puzzling how Judt decided to translate some titles ("Paisan" rather than "Paisà") and not others ("Sciuscià" rather than "Shoeshine") once referring in the same page to the same movie with two different titles "Roma città aperta" and "Open City".
Well, how many non-Italians of you know that "città aperta" means "open city"? Why not using a marginal note, I wonder?
But it seems like marginal notes are used pretty much randomly by Judt. Let's make another example of this unexplainable freedom of choice:
While quoting the famous John F.Kennedy sentence "Ich bin ein Berliner" Judt juxtaposes a "(sic)" at the end of the quote suggesting in that way how Kennedy made a mistake. Yeah, but which one?
For those who are not familiar with German the explanation is that JFK should have said "Ich bin Berliner". By saying "ein Berliner" the American president called himself a doughnut, a krapfen or whatever. And yet Judt forgot to make it clear with a simple marginal note.
For the whole book Judt uses marginal notes without any logic. Sometimes he cites, say, Primo Levi or Arthur Koestler and puts a note down the page for telling the reader the reason why he did or from which book/article he took the quote while other times he reports accounts or books without any marginal note.
Once again, why?
Now let's talk about math. It's notorious how historians (and journalists) have no talent with numbers. That's exactly where a good editor should intervene by double-checking their figures. But Judt's coach was clearly not brilliant in math too. Any proofs? Have a look at the chapter named "The Age of Affluence". At some point Judt states that "at the beginning of the 1950s there were only 89,000 private cars (not counting taxis) in Spain: one for every 314,000 persons".
Wow! Had Francisco Franco known that Spain had twentyseven billions nine hundred fortysix millions inhabitants by that time he would have certainly tried to draw more ambitious plans, even with the few cars Spaniards owned. Please, guys, check the numbers when you read this tome!
Nevertheless, I don't want to keep going at Mr Judt any further. He's not in this world anymore and it doesn't seem fair criticising those who just left.
"Postwar" is huge, grand, impressive and will teach you many things over Europe that you didn't know, but perhaps using the term "masterpiece" for this brick of a book is a bit inappropriate.
Still, a high rating is well deserved: I reread "Postwar" pretty often. And not for finding its mistakes.
This is the zenith, the summit, the highest peak reached by a certain kind of British humour I like.
Those who are keen of PG Wodehouse may object a couple of things to this remark and probably they have their point: the thing is that I never read anything by Wodehouse (by the way: from which book should I start?).
There are moments of this German bummel or escapade in which Jerome is simply impossible to stand any further. I daresay it's not legal, being that funny, sharp and witty. One could choke on a burst of laughter.
And it almost happened to me.
I simply couldn't help myself but laugh, laugh, laugh while reading about the scrupolous German dogs or the way to get rid of German cats when they don't let you sleep. And the way Jerome wrote: absolutely magnificent.
But it's not all about humour. There are also a lof of insightul observations on Germany and Germans that can now be put in perspective. When Jerome, Harris and George (without Montmorency at this time) traveled through Germany it was hard to picture the horror of Ypres in World War I and the whole dirty business of nazism, but still JKJ understood quite a lot.
The following lines may suffice:
"In Germany today one hears a good deal concerning Socialism, but it is a Socialism that would only be despotism under another name. Individualism makes no appeal to the German voter. He is willing, nay, anxious to be controlled and regulated in all things".
Now, when Jerome wrote this, Hitler was only eleven years old and I hardly doubt that he ever found any interest in having a bummel, although he later toyed with flânerie getting in and out of Munich beer halls.
This book was a divertissement, but it is also a brilliant testimony on how life went on in a serene Germany where everything was efficient but relaxed before someone decided to play the policeman of a whole nation.