Josef Škvorecký: Nevesta z Texasu (The Bride of Texas)
At first glance, this seems different from Škvorecký’s usual haunts as it is set in and around the American Civil War but it soon becomes apparent that it has the familiar theme of Czechs in America. I found it a messy novel as the plot jumped over the place – not just backwards and forwards but bits of plot arbitrarily bundled together. The main theme is the group of Czechs fighting for Sherman, particularly on his march through Georgia. We follow their course but also get flashbacks and flash-forwards of the main characters. We learn about their pre-Army life in America, how their regiment was formed and, in particular, how life was for them back in Czechoslovakia under Austrian rule. Indeed, virtually every character – good and bad – we meet in Austria ends up either dead or in the USA. We follow the story of Czech settlers in Texas and Chicago, giving Škvorecký ample room to comment on both South and North, slavery and the Yankee idea of freedom. (To his credit, he does, at least partially, question the Yankee notion of freedom.)
It’s not all Czechs. We also follow the story of a woman romance writer, writing under the name Laura Lee, who is a friend of the less than successful Yankee general Ambrose Burnside (chosen, according to Škvorecký’s afterword, because Graham Greene had said that writers should focus on characters ripe for universal condemnation rather than heroes everyone likes) and, through her, the career of Clement Vallandigham, leader of the Copperheads. We see the Southerners and their wicked ways (Škvorecký is an unapologetic Yankee) and learn how nice General Sherman is, even while he is waging total war on a civilian population and, of course, we get love and the Bride of Texas. But, overall, the result is confused mess where the parts do not seem to come together and you are left wondering whether it was all worth it.
First published in Czech 1992 by Sixty-Eight Publishers, Toronto
First published in English by Knopf 1996