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Irena told me once that she went into the woods by herself with the dog to think. About literature and politics and I don’t know what all. And I felt secretly embarrassed when she told me that, because when I’m alone usually all I ever think about is girls, and I felt inferior compared to her.
Right now I am fascinated with the sudden interest in translated fiction from Europe and eastward towards the nations of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson got things started, but even before the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there were books by the likes of Pelevin appearing in Waterstones.
What’s more we are in the enviable position to be able to enjoy works that were censored under Soviet rule, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only did the Russian novelist fall victim to censure, he even earned special attention from Stalin by demanding to be allowed defect if his book could not be published. Josef Škvorecký’s novel was also banned and this edition opens with an Author’s Preface were he pleads for understanding and clemency. It’s a strangely pathetic plea, defending the work while simultaneously apologizing for it. In the regard the events of the book seem prophetic.
Danny and his friends are waiting for the end of the war in the small Czech town of Kostelec. It is May 1945. Hitler is dead and the Germans are said to be retreating, with the Russian army on their tails and the western allied forces waiting in Berlin. Danny doesn’t care, he just wants to play jazz and sweet-talk some of the local girls. Of course he loves Irena most of all, but she is going out with Zdenek the thick-bodied Alpinist.
Of course, one thing that really impresses girls is a hero, so when the opportunity arrives to teach the defeated Nazis a lesson, Danny, Haryk, Benno and Lexa sign up to join the official paramilitary force. They are shocked when the town elders demand they hand over the weapons they had managed to scrounge during the war and then ordered to march around Kostelec unarmed. Quickly deciding this was nothing like the revolution promised, Danny tries to think of way to avoid further boredom. He concentrates on trying to woo Irena, even as the occupying German force becomes increasingly nervous, with the growing danger of a massacre caused by an angry local trying his luck robbing a submachine gun. Despite not seeming to care a whit for the course of the war, he seems to repeatedly find himself in the centre of events, attracting the anger of a frightened German soldier and even later becoming an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered prisoners of war escapees.
This is a blackly comic novel, with a wry note of suspicion towards authority. While Danny appears to care about nothing more than music, girls and American movies (nursing an enormous crush for Judy Garland), he is aware that all the folk of Kostelec are witnessing is a changing of the guard, despite the Soviets’ claims that they are a liberating force. Local boy Berty has even taken to photographing everything, with a view to selling the photos of the ‘revolution’, in years to come. There’s a significant scene between Danny and a soldier from Liverpool who asks if he would prefer if the British were in charge. Of course, he replies, but this is the situation.
Again and again the theme of the novel comes back to impotence. The title is inspired by the characters failing to live up to the heroic ideal of patriotic warriors repelling the invaders with guerrilla tactics and bravery. Yet Danny and his friends know that they are caught up in events they cannot control, any more than they can get a girl to notice them. In his head winning over Irena should be easily achieved by imitating the Hollywood lovers he is obsessed with, even affecting an American accent every now and then. It never seems to work out in real life though.
This story was written before the author was twenty-four years old. It is a young man’s book, but with an incisive degree of self-awareness and a mocking tone throughout. An excellent novel.