Posts Tagged ‘Prague Spring’

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…

Advertisements

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.

%d bloggers like this: