The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký | War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

Book Review for July 2011 Staff

Written by Staff Published on 18.07.2011 12:08:45 (updated on 18.07.2011) Reading time: 4 minutes

The Cowards
Written by: Josef  Škvorecký
Published by: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 120 p.
This book is available at the Big Ben Bookshop

The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký

Banned immediately upon publishing, Josef Škvorecký´s The Cowards tells the story of the waning days of World War II in the town of Kostlec, Czech Republic. The Red Army is approaching, the Nazis are still putting up a fight, and the main character, Danny, is mostly interested in women and playing jazz. This is a black comedy, showing small town life, rapidly shifting loyalties, and the obligation of joining the resistance for lack of something better to do. For the residents of Kostlec, though, both preparing to “fight” the Nazis and “welcome” the Russians as their liberators is a bit of a farce, and this is something that Danny and his friends seem to realize. But the lure of shooting guns and seeing some action is attractive, and might be a good way to make an impression on the ladies.

Danny loves jazz, and his jazz band is the light of his life. That and Irena, the girl of his dreams who is in love with someone else. The majority of the book is dedicated to Danny´s thoughts on Irena, women in general, and his annoyance with everything going on around him. His impatience to get on with life is obvious, but his lack of actually doing anything much seems like it will hinder his progress.

Initially, the book is pretty slow going, but the action picks up in the second half when things actually start to happen – opposite of the first half, which details Danny wandering around thinking about Irena. The book ends where it begins – with music. And by the end you have developed an opinion on Danny, which is all a reader can hope for – a little connection with the characters.

Danny´s self-indulgences do get a bit old, but the book is rescued by Škvorecký´s descriptions of everyday “war” life. The people, their actions, reactions, and non-action all seem quite familiar and it is this aspect of the books that makes it a recommended read. And the jazz parts. When Danny is talking about, thinking about, or playing jazz he develops a personality beyond his typical wallowing ways that gives him a much needed, and more likeable, character.



War with the Newts
Written by: Karel Čapek
Published by: Dalkey Archive Press
Pages: 120 p.
This book is available at the Big Ben Bookshop

War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

The attraction of reading any of Karel Čapek´s books at any time is that they make you feel you are reading a contemporary story. No matter the current state of world affairs, Čapek manages to capture the political, economic and social conditions the reader is currently experiencing. War with the Newts, his 1936 satire on early 20th century Czech politics is no exception. He manages to parody capitalism, communism, nationalism, the wealthy, the stupid, intellectuals, educational theories, the scientific community, economics, politics and more, in a book I actually found surprisingly sweet.

Captain van Toch discovers giant salamanders on an equatorial island near Sumatra. In a classic win-win situation, he quickly discovers that the newts have a fondness for oysters, but are unable to open the shells. Coincidently, Captain van Toch has a fondness for pearls. He supplies the easily taught and quickly learned newts with knives to open the oysters; they “pay” him with the pearls. It is Captain van Toch initial descriptions of, and caring for the newts that give them a sympathetic feeling that for me lasted through the book.

“Must nature always be asked to straighten out the mess that man has made?” is a line from the final chapter of the book. As big business takes over the management and trading of the newts, the world is rapidly transformed. The newts make excellent and most importantly, cheap workers; building dams, dykes, and even new land, and corporations and countries find new and innovative ways of utilizing their talents. Of course, tools must be provided to the newts, which greatly increases the capacity of the world´s factories. A period of economic growth has settled upon the world.

There are of course, things still to be argued about – for example, wouldn´t the newts be happier if they wore clothes? And shouldn´t they be schooled, not only in how to speak and use tools, but also in things like fine art and literature? Čapek introduces new characters throughout the book and uses a variety of literary styles, not in an annoying way, but as an additional means of getting his point across. For example, his extensive use of footnotes in one section is a thinly disguised poke at the snobbish scientific community. Underneath it all is the running theme that men´s greed is the ultimate cause of their self-destruction.

Readers who enjoy social commentary barely disguised in black humor will appreciate all of Čapek´s books, and the genius of Čapek is that even if you care nothing for his underlying themes, his stories are just darn good anyway. I recommend War with the Newts for anyone looking for a highly enjoyable story that will leave a smile playing across your face.

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