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on 27 July 2004
I had never heard of Skvorecky or this book when I bought it. I have read a few books set in Eastern Europe during the last days of WWII, and have enjoyed many of them, so when I read the blurb I decided to give it a go. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have made in a while. Although there are an infinity of books about war, and why it is rubbish, I had never read one with such a breathtakingly honest and human-centred view of young men fighting.
The story concentrates on Danny, who plays in a jazz band in a small Czech town as the German occupation is ending and the Russians are arriving from the east. Danny plays jazz to impress girls. As the Germans lose their grip, partisan groups begin to spring up, and Danny tries to join one of these. He wants to be a partisan to impress girls. He becomes disillusioned as first the partisans then the official Czech army become embarrassingly chaotic and ineffectual. He becomes embarrassed because he knows that the girls won't be impressed. When he does eventually (accidentally) become involved in some real fighting (and acts heroically in the process) the reality doesn't match up to the fantasy, and he looks forward to impressing girls by playing jazz again. The whole story is underpinned by a photograph taken of Danny when he first joins the partisans, of him looking dangerous in his fighting gear and with a grenade launcher slung casually over his shoulder, a weapon that he was forced to relinquish mere minutes after receiving it. For Danny this photograph represents a successful war, because he had his moment looking cool and hard, and it was enshrined on film forever. The political and moral arguments surrounding the war pass him by, he just wanted to look good as a soldier.
I loved this very human perspective of war as a boost for the libido. I often wonder how thousands of apolitical people can go to war and involve themselves in horrific events, when they are devoid of ideological motives for doing so. Skvorecky's book provides the obvious answer: they do it because they think it is sexy. This book exposes a truth behind the glorious façade that war is often given, namely that fighting is often done by disinterested people for trivial reasons. The contrast between Danny's impressive photo and the mundane reality of his actions and motives is beautifully realised. This is a flawless book about the nature of fighting and fighters, and deserves to be widely appreciated.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 October 2004
This is great. A thinly veiled account of the author's own experiences as a jazz-loving delinquent in wartime Czechoslovakia.
He wrote a handful of books featuring Danny the sax player and they are all worth checking out. This is the one to start with though.
20th Century Czech writers have a great deal to tell us I think - given they lived under Fascism, Communism and Democracy all in the space of a lifetime. Skvorecky also tells us some universal truths about simply being young and on the make.
Stylish, touching and funny.
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