Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

An Editor’s Choice of The New York Times Book Review and Book of the Year of The Guardian, The Bass Saxophone was Josef kvorecký’s first North American success in translation. Its satire is acute, its sense of atmosphere vividly compelling. Surreal images proliferate as the story grows before fading like music.

In a broad sense, kvorecký can be placed in the category of emigre writers, for he is a writer in exile from his native land, who uses a foreign language by which to express his preoccupations. Although The Bass Saxophone is set in a Czech town, it does catch the feeling of social and political displacement—a theme that is enlarged in Zbabelci (1958; The Cowards, 1970) and Pribeh inzenyra lidskych dusi (1977; The Engineer of Human Souls, 1984), for in these two novels, kvorecký describes conditions in a small town in northeast Bohemia during periods of German Fascism and Soviet Communism. Other connections exist as well: The narrator and protagonist of The Cowards is Danny, a twenty-year-old zoot-suited, idealistic but innocent tenor saxophonist; the same character, now a middle-aged academic living in Canada, narrates The Engineer of Human Souls.

In all of his fiction, kvorecký proves to be a realist—though not the type of social realist normally associated with East European writing, because he refuses to create an apocalyptic hero who sets a prescription for moral or political action. kvorecký is against dogmatic ideas, and although he can sometimes be smug about his own vision, he does not believe in programs for human action or nature.

The grotesque elements of The Bass Saxophone bear affinities with the black comedy in The Engineer of Human Souls and are derived from a European tradition that encompasses Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hasek, and Gunter Grass. In the novella, the grotesque takes the form of characters, situations, and props that are both pleasantly ridiculous, as well as bizarre, frightening, and monstrous. The grotesque elements constitute a structure of estrangement for the narrator, who is strongly affected by a world that ceases to be reliable and which instills in him a fear of life rather than of death. The surreal moments fuse the fantastic and the satiric aspects of the grotesque, so that, while the narrator experiences moments of provocative vitality, he is also pushed along the borders of terror and loss.