TALKIN’ MOSCOW BLUES By Josef Skvoreckÿ Edited by Sam Solecki
Cool jazz and hot words
TALKIN’ MOSCOW BLUES By Josef Skvoreckÿ Edited by Sam Solecki (Lester & Or pen Dennys,
367 pages, $17.95)
Exile has been a boon to some writers, a disaster for others. Josef Skvorecký is one of the lucky ones. He left his native Czechoslovakia when he fled to Canada after the Soviet-led invasion of 1968. But, as he testifies in his new collection of essays, Talkin' Moscow Blues, he has thrived in his adopted home. More prolific than ever, the Toronto-based writer has published 10 books since his arrival, including the winner of the 1984 Governor General’s Award for fiction, The Engineer of Human Souls. He has also continued to bear witness to the suffering of his native land, where the so-called normalization of life after 1968 has entrenched the suffocating restrictiveness of a police state. No matter what he is writing about in Talkin' Moscow Blues—detective stories, politics, film or his beloved jazz—
Skvoreckÿ is never far from the central historical discovery of his life: the existence of totalitarian evil.
As he recalls in his autobiographical essay, I Was Born in Náchod . . . , Skvoreckÿ came to that knowledge firsthand. During the wartime occupation of his country, the Nazis forced him to work in a factory making Messerschmitt airplanes. Then, in 1959, Czechoslovakia’s Communist government suppressed his first novel, The Cowards, because its realistic dialogue and emotional honesty transgressed Stalinist artistic criteria. Many of his colleagues fared much worse. The pages of Talkin' Moscow Blues are littered with the stories of artists who were jailed, killed, kicked out or seduced into betraying their talent. It all adds up to a cautionary tale of the highest order.
Yet, Skvoreckÿ’s horizon does have limitations. In his view, the unparalleled threat posed by nuclear weapons takes second place to the anti-Communist struggle. That approach appears in his hard-hitting polemic Are Canadians Politically Naive?—a question that he answers in the affirmative. In that work, he condemns all those Canadians who subscribe to the peace movement as foolish idealists who, unwittingly or not, favor unilateral disarmament and surrender to the Red Army.
Despite such highly debatable arguments, Talkin ’ Moscow Blues is frequently both wise and entertaining. Skvoreckÿ tells some darkly funny stories about the lengths to which musicians and fans have gone to defy totalitarian prohibitions against jazz. In the process, he shows how the music was condemned by both Nazis and Communists for reasons that now seem the height of
absurdity. Dictators of all stripes, it seems, hate whatever possesses a spontaneous potency. They would undoubtedly hate Skvoreckÿ’s book.
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