Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

One of the epigraphs to The Cowards is Ernest Hemingway’s assertion, “A writer’s job is to tell the truth.” This is the supreme virtue of the novel. Its truths are seldom palatable, for they expose the devious and often nasty workings of the human heart. Danny is the character least spared by the author, even though he is closely modeled on Josef kvorecký himself. In fact, Danny has been the protagonist of many of the novels that kvorecký has written. In the author’s preface to one translation, kvorecký mentions that, at first, critics “charged that the novel was an offense against concepts sacred to the Czech and Slovak people and that it caricatures and insults the Red Army.” kvorecký claims that this criticism is beside the point. He believes that the book was absolutely realistic and portrayed his people and the Red Army as they were, warts and all. “Danny and his friends,” he writes, “do not insult the revolution, but mock the way the bourgeoisie play at making one.” After the failure of the uprising against the Soviets in 1968, the writer emigrated to Canada.

For Danny, jazz is another way of mocking the bourgeoisie and an attempt to express his spontaneous feelings, but Danny’s problem is that he cannot escape his bourgeois rearing, which he is unwilling to forsake. His moods fluctuate between exultation and despair as he feels raised up by his hopes and dreams and then dashed by the realities and disappointments of life. This account of the life of a romantic youth is highlighted by the events swirling around him during the last days of World War II, when bombing raids, battles, and sudden death became part of everyday life. Ironically, a youth’s egotism can overshadow even the cataclysm of a world war and a revolution.