Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (part 1)

July 29, 2021

     Here is a book to which I return regularly, and each time it rises in my estimation. This time, I’ve re-read it perhaps rather earlier than I might otherwise have done, but since I chose it as a read for our book group, I needed to remind myself of the detail before leading a discussion.

What I’ve realised is that it’s a very close, full and painful presentation of the life of an exile, and, as such, it has led me belatedly to a much clearer appreciation of my late father’s experiences, although they were very different from those of Josef Skvorecky. You can read my previous thoughts on the novel here, if you’re interested.

I say novel, despite the major autobiographical content, which has been disguised and fictionalised in many ways, and not just to protect people who might otherwise suffer consequences. The hero is Danny Smiricky/ a thinly veiled Skvorecky, who features in many of the author’s works. Here, he is in his forties, a professor of English Literature at a fictitious college in a Toronto suburb. The novel, however, was written in Czech, in 1984, and translated. Canada offers the exile a sense of freedom of a kind, but it’s a country with no past, and not all the Czech exile community can stand the separation; some of the characters agonise about the risks of return; some do.

He is weary of the world; his students alternate between boredom with literature and incomprehension of his take on the texts and the world in general. They plagiarise their essays. Nevertheless he is interesting enough for one of his women students to have an affair with him. Their affability, affluence and lazy freedom silently contrast Smiricky’s experiences at their age.

The novel ranges widely from Smiricky’s youth in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren, with naive attempts by him and his friends at resistance and sabotage, through the chaos of the gradual communist takeover and transformation of Czechoslovakia, and the necessary rewriting of history, to the gradual realisation that you cannot give a human face to Stalinism, Alexander Dubcek’s brave attempt and failure in the Prague Spring of 1968, and finally of the need to leave an oppressive homeland which offers no future. There is then the emptiness of exile, and for many, aimless wandering in search of home.

In many ways, the book is the nostalgia and heimweh of a middle-aged man who is realising that his life will never be the one he hoped for. Pitilessly Skvorecky exposes the moral complexities all his characters are faced with, either in the oppressive homeland or the supposedly free West; all are found wanting in various ways. Nothing can ever be simple. Time shifts between the professor’s literature classes, life under Nazi or communist oppression, and the Czech exile community in Canada, and the text is regularly punctuated by letters from his past friends now scattered to various different places. These letters need no commentary: they speak painfully for themselves. The picture is one of the increasing insanity of our world, through a character who has lived through so many contradictions. (to be continued)

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