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Authors: Josef Skvorecky

The Cowards


Josef Skvorecky is professor of English at Erindale College, University of Toronto. He emigrated to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and he and his wife, the novelist Zdena Salivarova, continue to keep Czech literature alive through their Czech-language publishing house, 68 Publishers. Skvorecky was the 1980 winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature and was nominated in 1982 for the Nobel Prize. His novel
The Engineer of Human Souls
won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 1984. In 1992 Josef Skvorecky was appointed to the Order of Canada.



Miss Silver’s Past
The Bass Saxophone
The Swell Season
The Engineer of Human Souls
Dvorak in Love
The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka
Sins for Father Knox
The End of Lieutenant Boruvka
The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka
The Miracle Game
The Republic of Whores


Jiří Menzel and the History of the
Closely Watched Trains
All the Bright Young Men and Women
Talkin’ Moscow Blues

Copyright © 1958, 1994 by Josef Skvorecky

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada in 1995 by Vintage Books Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. First published in Czechoslovakia in 1958 under the titles
First published in Great Britain in 1958 by Victor Gollancz Ltd. First published in Canada in 1980 by Penguin Books Canada Ltd. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Škvorecky, Josef, 1924–
 [Zbabělci.   English]
The cowards

Translation of: Zbabělci
eISBN: 978-0-307-36414-2

I. Title.   II. Title: Zbabělci.   English.

PS8537.K86Z213 1995      C891.8′63      C94–932115—X
PR9199.3.S58Z213 1995


To Zdena, the girl I met in Prague

The British edition of this book is dedicated to all my friends to whom the old Latin saying,
Donec ecris felix
 … does not apply.

Author’s Preface

I wrote
The Cowards
in 1948–9 when I was twenty-four years old. The events narrated in the book had been then only four years in the past, and I was still full of them. I remember that my main hope was to capture the magic reality of those turbulent days in May 1945, and in them, the boys and girls who were the friends of my youth. Who, therefore, remain my friends even today, half a century minus one year later.

We thought then – or perhaps we wished then – that the Happy Days of Democracy Would Be Here Again. But we already sensed the taste of a very different future.

After that future had set in, some courageous editors managed to bring out
The Cowards
. The book was banned one month after publication, I lost my job and became a
persona non grata
, at least not FULLY
, until 1968, the
annus mirabilis
of the Prague Spring. The book, thanks to the draconian measures of the then Lords of the Realm, became a veritable cult novel, and marked, as one critic later said, ‘the beginning of the end of socialist realism in Czechoslovakia’.

I still meet people, not only in my old country but even in Canada – young tellers at the Royal Bank, customs officers at the Toronto airport, housewives shopping at The Bay – who recognize my face, which can occasionally be seen on the TV, and tell me that they read
The Cowards
and felt it all happened to them when they were teenagers. Although that was in a different country and much later.

I cherish these little marvels that, from time to time, happen to a writer, and I wish for no other reward.

Josef Skvorecky
Toronto, 6 March 1994

‘Any work of art that lives was created out of the very substance of its times. The artist did not build it himself. The work describes the sufferings, loves and dreams of his friends.’


‘A writer’s job is to tell the truth.’


‘There was a revolution simmering in Chicago, led by a gang of pink-cheeked high school kids. These rebels in plus-fours, huddled on a bandstand instead of a soap-box, passed out riffs instead of handbills, but the effect was the same. Their jazz was a collectively improvised nosethumbing at all pillars of all communities, one big syncopated Bronx cheer for the righteous squares everywhere. Jazz was the only language they could find to preach their fire-eating message. These upstart small-fries … started hatching their plots way out in … a well-to-do suburb where all the days were Sabbaths, a sleepy-time neighborhood big as a yawn and just about as lively, loaded with shade-trees and clipped lawns and a groggy-eyed population that never came out of its coma except to turn over … They wanted to blast every highminded citizen clear out of his easy chair with their yarddog growls and gully-low howls.’


Friday, May 4, 1945

We were all sitting over at the Port Arthur and Benno said, ‘Well, it looks like the revolution’s been postponed for a while.’

‘Yes,’ I said and stuck the reed in my mouth. ‘For technical reasons, right?’ The bamboo reed tasted good, as it always did. One of the reasons I played tenor was because I liked to suck on the reed. But that’s not the only reason. When you play it makes such a nice buzzing noise. It reverberates inside your skull, good and solid and rounded and high class. It’s a great feeling, playing a tenor sax. Which is another reason why I played it.

Benno took off his hat and hung it on the rack above Helena. He put his trumpet case on the table and took out his horn. ‘That’s it, for technical reasons,’ he said. ‘They don’t have enough guns or enough guts and there’re still too many Germans around.’

‘Anyway, it’s crazy,’ said Fonda. ‘We should all be glad things are going as well as they have so far.’

‘Except they’re not going all that well,’ said Benno.

‘What do you mean?’

Benno raised his eyebrows, stuck the mouthpiece into his trumpet, and pressed it against those thick Habsburg lips of his. Fonda watched him, his mouth half open, and waited. Benno blew into the trumpet and pressed the valves. He raised his eyebrows even higher and didn’t say a word. He wanted to keep Fonda in suspense. Fonda was always getting worked up over something. It didn’t take much to get a rise out of Fonda.

‘What do you mean?’ he kept on. ‘Has there been any trouble?’

Benno blew a long note and it sounded hard and very sure, so I stopped worrying about him losing his tone while he was in the concentration camp. He hadn’t. He definitely hadn’t lost it. Just from that one note you could tell he hadn’t.

‘There was a fight over in Chodov yesterday,’ he said, and unscrewed one of the valves.

‘What happened?’

‘Somebody got tight and hung out the Czech flag and then people tried to make the Germans give up their guns.’ Benno spat on the valve and stuck it back in.

‘And what happened?’ Fonda persisted.

‘The Germans didn’t cooperate.’

‘Anybody get hurt?’ asked Haryk.

‘Yes,’ said Benno laconically.

‘How many?’

‘About four.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Pop was there this morning with Sabata.’

‘And what’s going on over there now?’

‘Everything’s quiet. Everybody’s cooled off.’

‘Are the Germans still there?’

‘They are.’

‘Hell,’ said Haryk. ‘What did you mean anyway when you said what you did before?’

‘About what?’

‘About the revolution being postponed.’

‘Well, old man Weiss wanted to stage an uprising today. He had it all arranged with people in Chodov and Rohnice but when the trouble started up in Chodov ahead of schedule, they decided to forget it.’

‘How do you know, for Chrissake?’ said Fonda.

‘Also from Pop. Pop’s on some kind of national committee or something.’

‘Don’t believe him,’ said Helena. ‘He’s just trying to get you all worked up. Now sit down like a good boy and play, Benny!’

Benno picked up his trumpet and went over to sit down. Old Winter shuffled in from the taproom and set a glass of pink soda pop down in front of Helena.

‘Hey,’ said Lucie, ‘don’t you have any lime soda?’

‘I’ll be right with you,’ said Winter, and slowly shuffled back to the tap. He had three rolls of fat at the back of his neck and his seat sagged. He reminded me of an elephant – I don’t know
whether it was male or female – I saw in a circus once. It kept tramping around the ring, its behind hanging down, limp and deflated, just like old Winter’s. Josef Winter said his old man had progressive paralysis, but then he was mad at him because his old man wouldn’t give him any money and only grumbled about Josef’s loafing around all the time and never doing anything. Even if he did have progressive paralysis, I don’t know whether that would have any connection with his pants. Anyway, it was only an idea. Kind of a dumb idea, the kind a person has subconsciously. Because inside, people are dirty dogs. Everybody. The only difference is some people try to hide it and others don’t bother. The door opened and Jindra Kotyk came into the Port.

‘Hello,’ he said, and started off to pick up his bass fiddle which he kept in the Winters’ bedroom.

‘About time,’ said Fonda.

‘I couldn’t get here any sooner. Boy, did all hell ever break loose at our place today!’


‘At the factory.’

‘Huh?’ said Haryk.

‘At Messerschmidt. At the factory.’

‘You mean you went to work today?’ said Haryk.

‘Well, what’s wrong with …’

‘Man, you’re dumb,’ said Fonda.

‘What’d you want me to do?’

‘Well, certainly not make a fool of yourself,’ said Haryk. ‘What’s the point in showing up for work at the factory any more?’

Mrs Winter appeared in the kitchen door with the bass fiddle. This saved Jindra just when he’d worked himself into a pretty tight spot.

‘Thanks,’ he said and ducked behind his fiddle. He pretended he was tuning up but that wasn’t very shrewd of him since everybody knew he wasn’t. He couldn’t. He didn’t know how. The fact was he was just a sort of stopgap since we hadn’t been able to find another bass player. To be more exact, we hadn’t even been able to round up a bass, so when Jindra bought one
we were glad to at least have somebody propping up a bass behind us when we appeared in public. The only trouble was we had to let him play it, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t let us use his fiddle at all. So we chalked some marks up under the wires so the sounds he did make wouldn’t be too far off and in time he actually learned to plunk away pretty well. He even had a red-hot solo in one number. All that saved it from being a complete fiasco was the terrific energy he brought to his playing. All you could hear were those wires, which he plucked like mad, snapping away against the neck; applause usually covered up the sour notes. Jindra was very proud of his solo and called his technique the ‘Jan Hammer style’ – after the Czech swing-bassist – and we let him call it whatever he wanted to. It would have been stupid to cross him up, since his old man owned a dry-goods store and had some pull with City Hall and the Germans, which came in handy when we were trying to get an engagement.

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