Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 267
The narrator, a male jazz musician in Kostelec, a small town in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. the eighteen-year-old Czech dandy and jazz saxophonist is swept into a band concert for the Nazi occupation forces by his fascination with a beautiful rare bass saxophone. Wearing a false mustache to escape recognition by other Czechs, he dons the green, purple, and orange costume of Lothar Kinze’s German orchestra in order to play the bass saxophone. His personal passion for music overcomes his fear of political reprisals. Interrupted and unmasked, he flees the hotel concert hall, but the secret experience remains for him an emblem of his youth and the mysteries of life.
Horst Hermann Kühl
Horst Hermann Kühl, a Nazi official in Kostelec. Kühl once confiscated one of the narrator’s jazz records when it was accidentally broadcast in the cinema. Although the narrator suffered no prosecution for his offense, he continues to suffer from fear of Kühl and his power. Kühl attends the concert by Kinze’s orchestra.
Lothar Kinze, the leader of and violin player for a small German orchestra traveling by bus through occupied territories. A seedy refugee from circus performances, Kinze recruits the narrator to replace his ill saxophonist.
The man on the gilded bed
The man on the gilded bed, the regular bass saxophone player in Lothar Kinze’s orchestra. Interrupting the narrator’s performance, he takes the stage in a stirring performance that elicits the ire of Kühl and burns itself into the memory of the narrator, a moment of pain that shakes complacency.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 367
Taken in the context of kvorecký’s foreword, the anonymous male narrator is evidently a projection of the author. He is a youth with a romantic imagination for whom jazz is both a form of radical protest against political and artistic censorship and an expression of his youthful vitality and liberation from fear and self-pity. He knows the perils of indulging himself with the music, but he cultivates this indulgence with the same sort of deliberate air that he adopts for his foppish dress.
kvorecký creates the myth of youth. When the narrator remembers his sister Anna, he remembers, too, the young Nazi soldier who would write her poems in a blue notebook as he sat on a riverbank. When the narrator thinks of his love of jazz, he recalls his jeopardy at the hands of tyrannical Kuhl and all those European jazz-players who were swept underground by the laws against this “impure” music. The narrator is alert to the rurality of his home, which robs youth of its softness. There is also a strong note of fatalism in him, for his outlook on life is a bleak reconciliation to the idea of butchery. The specters of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek hover over Europe, and nothing in life appears to be certain, except oppression. Nevertheless, there is jazz—a euphoric release from the gathering storm clouds over Europe.
The other characters reinforce an apocalyptic vision of the evil consequences of dictatorship. Kinze and his fellow musicians are “types” of grotesque dehumanization. Kuhl is a monstrous personification of tyranny. The bass saxophone player is simply one more sad musician on the periphery of a disturbed world.
Because of its palpable, surreal effect on the story, the huge bass saxophone becomes one of the most vital characters. It is both fact and symbol, forcing others to struggle with its primitive power while leaving behind abstract waves of testimony to man’s proud spirit of survival and creativity. The instrument is monstrous, yet seductive; grotesque, yet hauntingly beautiful. It is marked by physical decay, yet is a sort of polyrhythmic phoenix—ominous, tragic, incapable of extinction. It grows in the imagination while generating memories of the troubled history of man.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 76
Balliett, Whitney. Review in The New Yorker. LV (October 22, 1979), p. 193.
Davies, Russell. “Dreams of Dixieland,” in The Times Literary Supplement. No. 3977 (June 23, 1978), p. 694.
Maloff, Saul. “Music and Politics,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIV (January 14, 1979), p. 7.
Prescott, P.S. Review in Newsweek. XCIII (January 22, 1979), p. 76.
kvorecký, Josef. “Some Problems of the Ethnic Writer in Canada,” in Canadian Literature. Supp. 1 (May, 1987), pp. 82-91.
Windsor, Philip. “Jazz as Truth,” in The Listener. C (August 17, 1978), pp. 220-221.
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