The life of The Bass Saxophone’s narrator is profoundly shaped by fear and anxiety as he tries to survive World War Two as a jazz musician in a Nazi-controlled territory that is now Czechia. Jazz was one of the “decadent” art forms that the Nazis banned. As the absurdist novel progresses, the saxophone exudes a powerful influence, almost a spell, over the narrator. Fear dominates this young man’s life as he tries to avoid German persecution or even imprisonment. In particular, he worries that Horst Kühl, the Nazi official who had confiscated one of his jazz records, will accelerate his aggression.
The instrument itself becomes almost a character in the novella. The sound it produces both mystifies the narrator and compels him to play, even in a hotel when he knows Kühl is in the adjacent room. Music has a paradoxical effect: immersing himself in music fully absorbs him, thus temporarily allaying his fears, but he is conscious that the action of playing certain types of music places him at risk.
The young man soon finds himself in a situation that encourages him to act on his conviction of the music’s benefit, even though the specific opportunity increases his anxiety. Despite his lack of experience, he is recruited to perform with a traveling German orchestra. The owner of the saxophone that has captivated him is a member of this orchestra, but he is too ill to perform. Although he dons a disguise to perform, wearing the outlandish costume that the other members wear, onstage he is riddled with fear because the audience consists of Nazi officers and bureaucrats. When the real player recovers, the narrator fears he will be exposed as a fraud. After Kühl does in fact recognize him, he is terrified of the consequences.
Through the medium of music and the near-obsession with an instrument, Josef Škvorecký encapsulates some of the dilemmas that Europeans in Nazi-dominated countries faced. Simply to enjoy a certain type of music rendered an individual an enemy of the state, requiring them to look over their shoulder. This climate of fear , omnipresent but ever shifting, becomes the dominant force that distorts the narrator’s whole life, as it is never safe to let down his guard.