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The cyclone had set the house down, very gently – for a cyclone – in the midst of a country of marvellous beauty. There were lovely patches of greensward all about, with stately trees bearing rich and luscious fruits. Banks of gorgeous flowers were on every hand, and birds with rare and brilliant plumage sang and fluttered in the trees and bushes. A little way off was a small brook, rushing and sparkling along between green banks, and murmuring in a voice very grateful to a little girl who had lived so long on the dry, grey prairies.

So many classic books have been immortalised on film and subsequently replaced in the minds of the public by their celluloid cousins. The Wonderful World of Oz is one such book. Even the title is different! Perhaps if the Michael Jackson/Diana Ross film had done better, we would all think of it as The Wiz. As it is Judy Garland’s singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow and the thematic quote ‘there’s no place like home’, have captured our imagination, not Baum’s original text. Even the meaning of the film has changed our understanding of the story. The Wizard of Oz ends with Dorothy realizing all her adventures were a dream. The grimmer 1980’s sequel Return to Oz and opens with the young heroine being locked away in an asylum due to her psychotic delusions.

Baum makes it clear that the Land of Oz itself is a real place, one that exists outside the ‘civilized world’. Dorothy is swept away when a cyclone snatches her aunt and uncle’s house, transporting it to the bright and colourful country so far from the grey Kansas landscape she grew up in. When she steps outside the house she is greeted by the kind Witch of the North and a strange people known as the Munchkins, who congratulate her on having killed the wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy is shocked at the accusation and insists she did not mean to kill anybody. The Munchkins thank her regardless, as they had been enslaved for many years by the powerful and evil witch and make her a gift of their former tyrant’s silver slippers. When Dorothy asks how she can find her way home again, the good Witch of the North explains that Oz is far away from America, cut off from the rest of the world by vast deserts that are impossible to cross. She recommends that Dorothy travels along the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and ask the great and powerful Wizard who lives there for help.

Dorothy and her dog Toto set out immediately, soon coming across three new companions. They rescue a talking Scarecrow from a Munchkin crop field; the Tin Woodsman from being rusted in place in a forest; and meet a cowardly Lion, who longs to be King of the Beasts, but is too afraid. When Dorothy tells the three companions that she is travelling to meet the Wizard living in the Emerald City to ask for his aid, they all offer to join her on her journey. The Scarecrow longs to have a brain, so he can think like other men and not be thought of as a fool. The Tin Woodsman used to be a real man and wishes to have a heart again, so that he can fall in love with the woman he left behind. The Lion is desperate to gain some courage, as he is tired of being frightened all the time. The journey is long and perilous, with the group chased by the beastly Kalidahs and forced to cross a magical poppy field. Finally they arrive at the Emerald City, only to be commanded by the Wizard to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Only then will he consent to giving Scarecrow a brain, the Tin Woodsman a heart, the Lion courage and Dorothy a way to return home to Kansas.

While I was reading this I found myself comparing the text to the film throughout. It was the same years ago when I read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and had the theme tune to Dogtanian and the Muskahounds stuck in my head throughout. This is a great shame, as Baum’s writing is both simple and beautiful, with Dorothy’s companions symbolic of the hardships suffered during the 1893 Depression (farmer, factory worker and soldier).

This is a fable that deserves its long-life.

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.

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