He used to play tenor sax, he says, “very poorly.” But in author Josef Skvorecky’s native Czechoslovakia, where Nazi butchers were quickly replaced by Socialist butchers, it took courage enough to simply blow the horn. The Third Reich banned “so-called jazz.” The dictatorship of the proletariat quickly followed suit. Whether the chest supported the Iron Cross or the Order of Lenin, totalitarians of every hue shriveled at the freewheeling spontaneous scat and syncopation of jazz. Still, the human spirit is enterprising. In an autobiographical introduction to his new book The Bass Saxophone (the first English edition of two Skvorecky novellas originally published in Czechoslovakia in the Sixties) Skvorecky recounts how his banned Prague Dixieland Band managed to get around the Soviet censors by enlisting the aid of an American defector and bass player named Herbert Ward and his dancer-wife, Jacqueline:
“We quickly put together a jazz revue,” writes Skvorecky, “and since Herb’s terribly shouted blues had anti-American lyrics and because Jackie’s skin was not entirely white the authorities didn’t dare protest. .. Later on, Herb and Jacqueline went the way of many American exiles: back home to the States, the land where the words ‘You can’t go home again’ generally seem not to apply.”
They applied to Skvorecky. He has been a chimera in the nightmares of successive Czech regimes since 1958 when his extraordinary novel The Cowards was published—and banned two weeks later. Shortly after the 1968 Russian invasion he fled Czechoslovakia. His books were banned, their tales of human fallibility grinding into the nerves of party bosses with the delicacy of a student dentist’s drill. But exile to the air-conditioned vistas of Toronto was not the end of Skvorecky as a political being. In midtown Toronto, Skvorecky and his wife, Zdena, operate the largest publishing house of contemporary Czech literature outside Czechoslovakia. From an office the size of a modest onebedroom apartment (rent $550 a month), where the air-conditioning works so fitfully that on muggy summer days the photopaper from their two typesetting machines won’t dry, the Skvoreckys will distribute 55 books in Czech this year alone. Many of them are edice Petlice (literal translation: padlocked edition), manuscripts smuggled out of a Czechoslovakia
now choking under the most repressive regime in Eastern Europe. Six thousand Czech and Slovak readers across North America and Europe buy from Skvorecky’s Sixty Eight Publishers—named after the ideals of 1968 before the Russians crushed the Dubcek government. Copies of the printed books are also smuggled back into Czechoslovakia along with royalties for their authors.
It was in the cluttered offices of Sixty Eight Publishers that this English edition of Skvorecky’s The Bass Saxophone was typeset and pasted up. The setting fits. The two novellas in the book (one set up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, the other under Soviet overlords) are wry, wrenching tales of laughter and lust squeezed into lives regulated by grim tyranny. Skvorecky’s style in this book (influenced probably by Faulkner and Tennessee Williams as much as Kafka or such German Moderns as Heinrich Boll) has a cerebral lushness and elaborateness that is easier to admire than to enjoy. Sentences extend over an entire page, giving the dense prose the complexion of a jungle with thoughts like running vines entangled among them-
selves. Still, there is not one bit of characterization that strikes a false note or a sentence of narration that rings hollow. The Bass Saxophone (and particularly the introductory essay Red Music) is essential reading for anyone wishing some insight into the soul of tyranny. How better to understand its numbing chill than by reading Skvorecky’s account of 10 Nazi regulations governing dance orchestras:
“(8) Plucking of the strings is prohibited since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality . . . strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden.”
Skvorecky himself (along with some of the fictional heroes he created) recklessly pattered on the sordine in spite of regulations. For tyranny, like any kind of adversity, can make good people bad and bad people worse, but it can make a few—very few—people like Josef Skvorecky exceptionally fine. BARBARA AMIEL
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