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The Cowards Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The action of the novel takes place during one week, between May 4 and May 11, 1945, the period between the defeat of the occupying Nazis in this area of Czechoslovakia and the takeover by the Soviets. The title refers to the fact that in spite of all the brave sentiments mouthed by the townspeople, few of them really want to be involved in the fight against the Nazi troops, until the issue is no longer in doubt.

The novel is narrated in the first person by Danny, a self-obsessed and self-conscious youth, who is often more worried about his unsuccessful courtship of Irena and his relationships with his peers in the jazz band than he is about the important events taking place around him. Danny is a member of the bourgeoisie and thus cannot really identify with the proletarians who are in favor of the approaching Russian troops. Nevertheless, he understands and fully exploits his privileged position. When he is arrested by the Germans during a demonstration early in the novel, he is saved from punishment, and possibly even execution, by the intervention of Dr. Sabata, a town official and a friend of Danny’s father. Danny then joins a partisan group and is issued a submachine gun, but immediately afterward, most of the group tamely turns over these guns when ordered to do so by the town authorities. The only holdout is Prema, their leader, who refuses to give up his gun and is jailed as a result.

The hopes and fears of the townspeople rise and fall at the confused news from the nearby front. The town organizes a militia, supposedly to keep order and to guard against an uprising of the local Communists. The militia marches around in the streets in small bands, but without guns. Danny joins this force too, but he feels silly while engaged in this pointless exercise. The militia engages in a number of fights with Communist insurgents, but since the town’s makeshift army remains unarmed, its efforts are futile. Eventually, Danny deserts.

The next development takes place when hundreds of prisoners of war, escaping from camps after German defeats, straggle into the town. Danny, who speaks English, becomes responsible for a group of English escapees and finds billets for them through his extensive contacts with bourgeois families. The next day, however, German troops on the retreat start moving through town, and Danny goes back to the militia, thinking that the time for real...

(The entire section is 636 words.)