Ploughshares into Swords
hardcover, 280 pp., 1. edition
translation: Short, David
published: december 2021
recommended price: 400 czk
“The terrible bow was drawn taut. Men had let their powers be taken captive and had become the stooges of governments, they had become drinkers of the blood that fuelled their rage, they had become angels of evil, devils who spilled blood like water. A raven with shreds of corpses still stuck to its claws was perched on their shoulder and yet they saw nothing and understood nothing. The orders of platoon commanders were their reasoning and a ghastly rough and tumble was their home, each such home perishing piecemeal as bayonets made mincemeat of arms rising to take aim. Death was a day that had no dusk and horrors became the wont of armies.”
Ploughshares into Swords is an expressionist anti-war novel in which Vančura tells the story of the denizens of the Ouhrov estate in language as baroque as the manor that ties them all together. The fragmented narrative introduces the reader to such characters as the Baron Danowitz, his sons, his French concubine, the farmhand František Horá, and the half-wit murderer Řeka in the autumn of 1913, before revealing their fates during the First World War. Spanning an area that stretches from the peaceful farmlands of Bohemia to the battlefields of Galicia, taking in the pubs of Budapest and the hospitals of Cracow, the novel constitutes an unsentimental and naturalistic approach to the war that created Czechoslovakia through a conscious subversion of the prophet Isaiah’s injunction that nations should beat their swords into ploughshares. Ploughshares into Swords is a stunning novel by one of Czech literature’s most important writers.
This modernist masterpiece, akin to the work of Isaac Babel and William Faulkner, is now available in English for the very first time.
A translator’s job, faced with a text like Vančura’s, is almost impossible. David Short has translations of many Czech and Slovak novels to his credit; this one must be his finest achievement. He uses very effectively the King James Version’s rhythms and vocabulary. His choice of title - Vančuras title was literally ‘Fields Arable and Battlefields’; Short’s version, Ploughshares into Swords, is an inversion of Isaiah 2:4 — is brilliant. Short renders the exchanges between drunken farm workers especially well: without turning them into Thomas Hardy characters or gentrifying them, he allows them to express themselves with clarity. The furious exhortations that bring the novel to its final climax sound as they should — not like a rant, but like a prophet’s ecstatic outpourings.
In fifty years, I have not read a book for review that has left such a deep impression. Karolinum Press’s edition, with its superb illustrations and perfect layout and binding, does the original justice.
Donald Rayfield (Literary Review, March 2023)