My love of Czech literature

September 22, 2015

I first came across Svejk (or Schweik as he was known then in the bowdlerised translation then in print; Cecil Parrott‘s full and unexpurgated version came along rather later) in the sixth form at school and laughed myself silly over his antics, and Josef Lada‘s wonderful illustrations. Humorous writing, satire even, about the horrors of the Great War, was new to me and an eye-opener – it wasn’t long before I was to come across Joseph Heller‘s masterpiece Catch-22, the only novel I know that rivals Hasek’s.

My teenage years overlapped with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and its consequences, particularly for its literature, which I came gradually to know as a student, the bitter disillusionment and wholesale repression after the Prague Spring. Some writers emigrated, Milan Kundera to settle in Paris and write in French, and Josef Skvorecky to Canada. Others wrestled with censorship at home, or wrote for the ‘bottom drawer’.

I’ve enjoyed the fizzy lightness of Kundera, and Bohumil Hrabal – who can forget Closely Observed Trains, once you have seen the film? – I’ve tried Ivan Klima but didn’t really warm to him, but my all-time favourite has to be Josef Skvorecky.

Much of his fiction seems to be semi-autobiographical, covering his younger days as a teenager and jazz fan and would-be rebel in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, through the character of the hero of a number of novels, Danny Smiricky. Danny and his friends, parents and peers populate many adventures, tinged with a love of jazz – forbidden as degenerate music during the war, of course, the teenager’s urge to try and get into bed with as many females as possible (which may perhaps make him a bit of a boy’s writer, though certainly not in any misogynistic way). Life becomes more serious in the post-war years, especially the first three, before Stalinism completely fixes its iron grip on the country. There are risks, dangers, difficulties in playing the music, chasing the girls and trying to be free. The Cowards, and The Republic of Whores deal with the immediate postwar years but my favourite is certainly The Engineer of Human Souls (Stalin’s description of what a writer should be) which has the author in exile in Canada, lecturing to high school students on American literature whilst reflecting on their incredible immaturity and naivete compared with his peers, remembering his younger days under the Nazi occupation, and the trial and tribulations of running an emigre publishing enterprise.

Skvorecky earned my adulation when I discovered he also wrote detective fiction, irresistible to someone reared on Sherlock Holmes. Three collections of short stories feature a melancholic, sometimes depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka, who has to solve a range of crimes, but whose life is further complicated by the fact that he lives in a totalitarian regime where certain people enjoy particular privileges or are untouchable. He also has a beautiful teenage daughter whom he loves, and who he knows will leave him one day. If you’re going to create a detective in the days when they are almost two-a-penny then you need an original take and an unusual character, and Skvorecky manages masterfully.

There are plenty of reasons why Czech literature of those times has a sad, even gloomy, introspective feel to it, but even under the heaviness of Nazi occupation and subsequent Stalinist rule – a grim half century – the irrepressible Czech spirit seems to shine through, and is probably my favourite of all the national literatures that I have to read in translation.

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