'The Cowards': Skvorecky's Contributions to Czech Humorist Literature

By Saskova-Pierce, Mila | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

'The Cowards': Skvorecky's Contributions to Czech Humorist Literature


Saskova-Pierce, Mila, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


In the Czech Republic Josef Skvorecky is famous for his role in helping Czech literature and culture to prosper in exile, despite the stiff censorship of the post-Prague-Spring government. But this rebel of Czech literature also deserves credit for his other contributions to Czech culture.

As a translator of English literature, Josef Skvorecky became for the Czech reading public a mediator of new ideas, works, and trends developing in the Western world. Besides being a theoretician of English mystery and detective stories, he was a member and later a supporter of dissident intellectuals who produced the nonofficial philosophy and literature that defined the achievements of Czech literature. His real conspiratorial life started when (together with the writer Zdena Salivarova-Skvorecka) he defected to Canada and began to support Czech dissidents from abroad. As a partner in his wife's publishing house, Sixty-Eight Publishers, he disseminated works that would have been suppressed by the Czech Communist Party and remained hidden in many writers' desk drawers.

Skvorecky is also a jazz theoretician and this knowledge plays a great role in his fiction. He describes his involvement in the Czech cinema in All the Bright Young Men and Women, in which he underlines the fact that the lucid and irreverent creativity of the intellectuals who fought the brainwashing experience of Stalinism was responsible for producing the New Czech Cinema of the sixties. Skvorecky belonged to the semiunderground debate clubs, which defined the culture of the post-Stalin times. The members (aspiring writers, filmmakers, and other Czechoslovak artists) helped stimulate the ensuing cultural thaw of the sixties.

Skvorecky's greatest role, however, was as a writer. Despite the threat of imprisonment, loss of work, and denied access to education, his admirers copied and distributed his works, allowing millions of readers to enjoy the liberating laughter his books offered. There are numerous reasons for his popularity. First, Skvorecky created the ideal anti-Communist literary hero. Apolitical and highly intelligent, Danny Smiricky represented the cynical, intelligent individuals who were able to make it through the system without having to compromise themselves. Danny, originally a character taken from real prototypes, became a hero for Czechs to model themselves after.

Second, Skvorecky created a specific language, coining a number of neologisms and reestablishing the legitimacy of colloquial Czech in literary works. He abolished the taboo against a sexually connoted lexicon, gracefully using vulgar and erotically charged words. His playful mastery of the spoken language, which constantly demonstrated his knowledge of world culture, starkly revealed the Communists' empty lingo. Composed of lofty, little received sayings and pseudohumanistic slogans expressed in a halting and wooden Czech, the Communists' ideological jargon appeared in the mouths of Skvorecky's characters with a vengeance, mocked by its own idiocy and degraded by the brutish actions of the people who use it. In contrast, while the Communists batter high literary language with unintentional barbarisms and mindless content, Skvorecky's heros, especially Smiricky, use the creative pliability of colloquial Czech to express perceptive and intelligent views. This is especially true in The Cowards. In fact, many of the neologisms, such as Bibenka (little idiot), coined by Skvorecky have entered the lexicon of the Czech language and helped define the antiestablishment's intellectual expression.

Skvorecky has in many ways been a rebellious innovator. He exploded onto the post-World War Two Czech literary scene with his novel The Cowards. While the novel itself does not contain anything objectionable by Western standards, it did violate the rules of the dominant Czechoslovakian Communist literary genre, socialist-realism. Furthermore, Skvorecky boldly treated the subject of the Second World War, which had already become a sacred text of the official literature, inaccessible to the comic writer. …

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