It has taken nearly a hundred years for the Czech writer Vladislav Vančura’s masterpiece to appear in English. Finally we have it, one of the greatest European First World War novels. Admittedly, Ploughshares into Swords is a text wrongly considered, even in its own country, as difficult; when I studied Czech, it was left off the curriculum. As a war novel, it is certainly unconventional: the author was a student doctor during the First World War and didn’t fire a shot, but he learned all about war from the wounded and dying he attended to, and he mastered the often inarticulate language in which their feelings and thoughts were expressed.
Vančura’s own language is the most striking and varied of any modern Czech writer. With a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, he was saturated in the Old Testament. The Czechs have the Bible kralická of 1613, a monument as dominant in their modern literature as the King James Version is in English. At times, Ploughshares into Swords leaves the reader with the illusion that Micah or Jeremiah has been resurrected, to fulminate once more about apocalyptic wars of extermination. But Vančura has a broader expressive range than mere anger. His characters include two farm labourers – overworked, bestial, crippled, almost mute, often drunk – and a parsimonious landowning baron with two sons: a marionette hussar and a mentally deficient priest. Vančura was a communist (he was expelled from the party because he opposed the dictatorial manner of Klement Gottwald, the future Stalinist dictator of Czechoslovakia); he felt for the working classes but had none of the sentimentality that other Czech left-wing writers showed in novels like Anna the Proletarian Girl. Vančura’s Old Testament rhetoric in Ploughshares into Swords is tempered by the precision and laconicism of someone who was all his life a surgeon and had once been a law student. Vančura was also a film director and scriptwriter (he was so famous that in 1941 Goebbels invited him, a known communist, to direct films in Germany – an invitation which, as a member of the Czech resistance, he refused), his experiences as which probably helped him tame the wildness and breadth of his themes.
Ploughshares into Swords is broken up into a series of compact scenes which follow a grim agricultural estate’s workers and owners as they find themselves passing through a far grimmer sequence of battlefields and hospitals on the Galician front. Death slowly claims one of each class: Reka (‘River’), a