Posts Tagged ‘Czechoslovakia’

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

August 7, 2017

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and I’ve just read it for the fifth time, according to my records; I was somewhat astonished to see, however, than I hadn’t picked it up since the end of the last century…

Josef Skvorecky was a Czech writer who left after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968. He had been published in Czechoslovakia before then, but after his departure was only printed in the West. Many of his novels are what I’d have to call semi-autobiographical, or fictionalised autobiography: he appears in the character of Danny Smiricky along with his friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the town of Kostelec, and later from Prague, and writes of his teenage years under the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the liberation and strange hiatus before the Communists established their grip. His themes are jazz – he and some friends played in a jazz band before, during and after the occupation – girls, in the ways that almost every teenage boy would identify with, politics as an inevitable part of life, and the desire for freedom.

This novel, which I rate as his best, is about feelings of exile, loss and rootlessness, and I suspect that these themes draw me back to him. Skvorecky values his freedom in Canada, and finds it impossible to explain the complexities of his past to his literature students in Toronto. Episodes relating his younger years playing jazz, chasing girls, doing compulsory labour in a Messerschmitt factory alternate with those relating his life as a college lecturer on English and American literature and his relationships with his students, and others portraying his life among the Czexh exile community in Canada, with their strange attitudes and beliefs. We also catch up with various people from his youthful past via letters. So it’s a complex read in some ways, and I did find myself realising that fairly soon it will be impossible for a Western reader to understand Skvorecky’s life without detailed annotation… the novel was only written in 1984!

The novel raises quite a few interesting reflections, perhaps firstly as to whether it’s a boy’s book, if that makes sense. Certainly the teenage, girl-chasing unrequited love and sex years may give that impression: I’ve never met anyone else who’s read any Skvorecky, let alone a female reader, so if there is one out there, I’d love to hear from you.

Then there’s the question of exile, and it was reflecting more generally on this theme in a previous post that drew me back to the novel in the first place. The entire novel is pervaded by a tone of sadness, wistfulness, regret, nostalgia, a powerful sense of loss; happy to be in Canada his heart wants a home, yet he shows us how those who go back are also lost, because it’s now another country, and he also shows us how those who visit from Czechoslovakia yearn for freedom and want to leave… there is no answer to the problem. As we approach the end of the novel, some friends die, some suffer from the compromises they have to make to stay at home, others lose their identities as they wander rootless around the world.

Skvorecky is a highly political writer, although by no means didactic; his ultimate philosophy seems to be to live for now because one can never be certain what horrors the future may hold, and that freedom is indivisible, it can’t be compromised on; he is Conradian in his attitude to revolutions and what they (don’t) achieve, and it’s interesting that one of the books he writes about studying with his students is Heart of Darkness. All politics is a game, a dirty one about power and nothing else.

There is a wonderful strand of humour running through the novel, and yet the horrors of the past break through in small, very powerful ways at times. It is a marvellous book, with so many layers to it which I still don’t think I’ve unravelled even after several readings; it’s not an easy read for someone unfamiliar with the region and its history. And, I found myself wondering if it’s actually the last time I’ll read it, because of the very powerful feelings it stirs in me…

Eastern European Literature

July 9, 2014

Following on from yesterday’s thoughts on Soviet literature, perhaps it’s opportune to look at the rest of the Soviet bloc, Eastern Europe or however one might now describe it. The countries concerned were under Soviet domination after the Second World War, although in different ways. For instance, Yugoslavia rejected Soviet tutelage and went its own way, Albania moved its allegiance from the Soviet to the Chinese camp before striking out on its own; certain countries such as Bulgaria and the DDR were seen as much more hardline in their discipline and allegiance to the USSR, and others such as Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary experimented with more liberal attitudes from time to time. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded by Warsaw Pact troops…

Many of the issues which governed the lives of writers in all those countries were the same as those which obtained in the USSR. Prior censorship was the rule; there were non-subjects and non-persons. I think the most glaring example of this was the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the KGB at Stalin’s orders in 1940; the Nazis discovered the crime and Soviet guilt was rapidly and clearly established, but the Soviets blamed the Nazis and so that was the official line…  Similarly, the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis was a taboo subject for all sorts of reasons. And don’t even mention the ‘ethnic cleansing’ (the term hadn’t been invented yet) that went on all over Eastern Europe after the end of the war…

So, onto literature: the DDR was pretty repressive, as far as I remember; Stefan Heym and Christa Wolf pushed at the boundaries and wrote some interesting novels; I know nothing about what was written in Bulgaria during the period; a Romanian teaching colleague introduced me to the bizarre novels of Agota Kristov (available in French, but I’m not sure about English) and Ismail Kadare left Albania and went into exile in Paris and published many interesting novels, coded, allegorical, covering the weird political goings-on in his native land. Broken April, and The Pyramid are a couple I would recommend very highly. I haven’t really explored Hungarian or Polish literature from those times, largely because not an awful lot got translated (I rant about this in various other posts!).  Polish writers’ memoirs and essays have fared rather better; Gustaw Herling and Czeslaw Milosz both wrote openly from exile.

It’s the literature and writers of Czechoslovakia that I have particularly enjoyed. I have found them the most lively, varied and outspoken. I think Josef Skvorecky is probably my favourite. After the events of 1968 he went into exile in Canada, where he enjoyed a long and distinguished academic career as well as being able to write openly about the wartime and postwar events in his homeland, exploring minds and attitudes, how people made compromises with various regimes in order to survive or not. I’d strongly recommend The Engineer of Human Souls (this was Stalin’s description of his ideal writer) as well as his excellent series of detective stories involving his depressive detective, Lieutenant Boruvka. Milan Kundera also went into exile, to Paris, and has probably been the best-known of the Czech emigre writers.

I do find myself increasingly wondering how much of all this is going to be remembered at all; looking back at what I’ve written, I’m struck by the number of non-existent countries I’ve mentioned; the weirdness of the events and daily life in all those places is now history – it’s a quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the consequent end of all those regimes. Because we are apparently ‘free’ to do and say what we will, it requires an enormous effort of the imagination to begin to understand those times, and most readers younger than me will now need notes and a glossary to be able fully to appreciate some of the writers I’ve mentioned. And they should try: it’s important those times are not forgotten…

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