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The Engineer of Human Souls

by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson
Knopf, 571 pp., $17.95

On the title page Josef Skvorecky’s novel describes itself as “An entertainment on the old themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death.” All that in slightly under six hundred pages? In the event, we witness what seems a miracle of organization, helped out by the gusto Skvorecky communicates to the reader and the latter’s reluctance to lose his way for longer than a paragraph or two.

Like the author, the narrator is a Czech writer who emigrated in 1968 and is currently a professor of English in Toronto (at Edenvale College in his case, at Erindale College in the case of the author). His books are published by a small émigré press in Toronto, while the author’s books are published in their original language by an émigré press run by Professor and Mrs. Skvorecky. Danny Smiricky, the fictitious professor, specializes in American writers (plus Conrad), and the novel’s scaffolding consists in the texts he is teaching. In Danny’s reading of them, a modern story hangs by every ancient tale: in Heart of Darkness Kurtz prefigures Stalin, in Poe’s “The Raven,” “Nevermore” refers to more lost things than one, Lovecraft needs no gloss.

So, first of all the book is an entertainment, offering almost too much of that indispensable commodity, in humor ranging from slapstick to high wit, in people from the utterly wicked to the virtually saintlike. The novel also amounts to a history of Czechoslovakia (to go no further) from the Nazi occupation through the subsequent sovietization and its various phases. And it provides a Bible of exile. In each case it achieves this by way not of generalizations but of particularities, as promised in the epigraph from William Blake and confirmed toward the end by a line from a Czech poet: “the poet’s fleeting heart beats strongest in small stories.” (Sir Philip Sidney’s preference was similar: the poet “coupleth the general notion with the particular example.”)

In his youth Danny embarks on a hero’s career by sabotaging the Messerschmitt ammunition drums he is obliged to work on: in large part, he is motivated by desire for Nadia, whose father has been killed by the Germans. His efforts are worse than futile, and his mates have to work overtime to restore the botched parts since (a) they would never pass testing and (b) more important activities on another front would be imperiled. In this, to Danny’s astonishment, they are aided by the Oberkontrolleur, a former number of the German-American Bund who came “home” in error. At the end of the war he is disposed of before Danny can testify on his behalf. Danny is soon cured of heroism, which unfortunately can cost innocent lives, and at one stage thinks of entering a seminary in the hope of avoiding the gallows.

Other “small stories” crowd the generally hilarious account of the Czech community in Toronto. The exile’s fate, we know, is a complex one. Danny himself is happy. Although the Communist party exists in Canada, it has no power “as yet”; there is nothing to fear in the literary line since he writes in Czech and the professional critics leave him alone, indeed he goes unreviewed except for occasional idle flatteries in the émigré press, “sandwiched between harvest home announcements and ads for Bohemian tripe soup.” Moreover, he is tolerant by nature, tolerant of his students’ ineptitudes (“This novel is a novel. It is a great work, for it is written in the form of a book”) and equally of Canada’s “blessed ignorance.” The latter infuriates many of the emigrants: the feather-bedded rebels, the easy contempt for democracy (the grass is never very green on one’s own side of the fence), the sight of male prostitutes skipping about in the streets: “They deserve a does of Bolshevism!” They find it galling that Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will should suddenly erupt into fame and fashion there as the first art film entirely made by a woman and thus of central significance to “Women’s Studies.”

Danny admits to himself that “the real religion of life, the true idolatry of literature” can never flourish in democracies, “those vague, boring kingdoms of the freedom not to read, not to suffer, not to desire, not to know, not to understand.”* But even so, he notes, progress still exists—women’s bottoms are now a third the size they were in his parents’ time.

Older émigrés wrangle over whether they should describe the National Liberation Army they dream of as “Incorporated” or “and Co.” or “Limited”: “Of course it always makes a better impression in business circles if your company’s incorporated.” One tireless man plans to set up a radio transmitter in Ethiopia and thereby exhort the citizens of Czechoslovakia to buy ten boxes of matches each and break them to form a V (for Victory, after Churchill)—this will both ruin the five-year plan and demoralize the commies. In a version of art for art’s sake, the Czech State Security Police go on spying after all reason to do so has disappeared, and so agents, professional or amateur, turn up in Canada with messages from old friends and colleagues. One way of unmasking them is to get them drunk and inquire after certain well-known personalities who don’t actually exist: they are bound to know them intimately.

Not all is sweetness and light—or drinking and lovemaking—in the Czech community, with some of its members sick of home, some sick for home, and some both. One of them denounces another to the Czechoslovak Association of Canada as a former Party member while a third is reckoned to be a fascist. Yet in these generations of emigrants “layered upon one another,” Danny finds a “close humanity”: “Pauperized, re-established, industrious, hungry for money, sentimental, hungry for freedom, limited, intellectual, mean, merciful. All kinds. Indestructible.” Veronika, the second most interesting character in the novel, wants Prague and freedom but knows she can’t have both. She chooses Prague, and the last we hear of her is a cable to Danny: “IM A FOOL STOP VERONIKA.” Milan, unable to settle down in Toronto, buys a ticket home, sees a smiling “comrade” at the embarkation gate, and turns tail—returning white-faced to join the later stages of his own farewell party. As for Danny, he will (in Veronika’s word) stop; he can return to his native Kostelec as easily in Canada, “in the safety of a decadently anti-police democracy,” as in Prague, and he does so constantly. He carries his homeland in his heart, just as it is carried within this novel.

The narrative shifts back and forth in time and place, and on one occasion, in the course of a few lines of print, we dart from present-day Canada to how Danny’s father’s leg was shattered at Zborov during World War I and how he died when it was amputated fifty years later, and then to 1948 when he was led off to prison by one Comrade Pytlik, exactly as the Gestapo had led him off five years earlier. The alternating of Danny’s Czech past with Professor Smiricky’s Canadian present has its point—everything is happening here and now—and the cost to the reader in extra attentiveness is not too high to be borne. We cannot expect an easy account of hard living. (Happily Danny’s adolescent lusts were largely drained away in an earlier collection of stories, The Swell Season,)

That “abominations tend to repeat themselves in variations that are embarrassingly similar” is a thought arising in an academic seminar, but is itself far from academic. We hear how Nadia saves Danny and herself from having to sign a mass petition condemning the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard heydrich—she faints and he carries her off to the first-aid room. One of Danny’s correspondents reports, ten years later, that during the signing of a petition denouncing a traitorous gang of Titoist-Zionist-revisionists a young woman faints and is carried off to the first-aid room by a member of the Union of Youth.

Jazz, loved by both narrator and author, gives offense to both Nazis and communists—as demonstrated in Skvorecky’s novella of 1977, The Bass Saxophone. There, a band got away with playing “Tiger Rag” under the Third Reich by calling it “The Wild Bull”; here, the number features in the program as “Red Flag.” Danny’s earnest friend Jan, who strives to reconcile literature with the requirements of socialism and is eventually found hanged, mentions a picture in an exhibition of Soviet art called “The Defence of Sevastopol”; it shows a handful of idealized Russian soldiers fighting off a horde of villainous Germans. He realizes that he has already seen a specimen of Nazi art in which a scattering of noble German soldiers were dispatching a mob of degenerate Russians; the title was “The Conquest of Sevastopol.” Plus c’est la même chose is heaped on Plus ça change, and the last instance, at least, may be thought both banal and inartistically neat. Yet banality and inartistic neatness are part of the story. Such exempla contribute to the dense texture of the novel, and it is hard to say what we would rather be without.

I could also forgo some of the lavatory scenes and smells—including a ludicrous and protracted episode in which a smuggled manuscript is surreptitiously handed over in a Toronto comfort station—and the tall horror-stories with which a youth transferred from Dresden regales the Messerschmitt workers. Svejkian, all too Svejkian! I could dispense too with much of the what-abouting that passes between the native Canadian intellectuals and the émigrés: What about Angela Davis? What about the Rosenbergs? What about Sacco and Vanzetti? Once democracy insists that people must be free to hold opinions, there will be no holding them and their opinions. That we know well. I was reminded of Saul Bellow’s story “Cousins,” in which the narrator customarily gives more information than his questioner can possibly have any use for; he takes every opportunity, he explains, of transmitting his “sense of life,” and “such a habit can be irritating.”

Some such complaint can be made of Günter Grass, another master of the epic canvas, and of Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, which the present novel rivals in scatology but outdoes in sexual zest. Skvorecky’s slogan, one thinks at times, could well be Sex Conquers All. In George Konrád’s recent novel, The Loser, a narrower Hungarian calvary, the narrator jokes with Imre Nagy: “You will admit that a good fuck is worth more than ten revolutions”—while the one may lead to an unwanted pregnancy, the other is bound to end in rows of coffins. But there is love here, also: in the refusal to despair, present too in Milosz’s poetry of Poland and his memories of good things as well as of bad, and specifically in the figure of Nadia, the book’s finest character, truest love of the great lover Danny, the factory girl who died young of tuberculosis. “How she would lick her lips with her unfussy little tongue, how she was simple as a clarinet counterpoint in a village band and yet full of surprises…how she had displayed the wisdom of a beautiful mayfly who is crushed under foot before she can fulfil the one meaning her life has. But no. Nadia’s life had a different meaning. It was more than mere biology—.”

In 1977, when this novel appeared in its original language, in two volumes published in Toronto by Sixty-Eight Publishers Corporation, a copy was passed to a respected Czech translator in London. He took the view that it was untranslatable: enormously difficult to reproduce the Czech colloquialisms, and impossible to capture the differences in idiom between the successive waves of emigrants. That Paul Wilson has had a grueling task is obvious. While the campus characters are convincing, the Czechs sound rather like American movie tough guys. Phrases like “the shit has hit!” and “But don’t take no account of me. I don’t mean dick,” in Kostelec in the early 1940s, may grate, and “I have to fly! I’m in for a grilling in chem” may seem unauthentic in a Czech schoolgirl of the same period, even a bourgeois schoolgirl. On the other hand, Wilson scores triumphs of his own: “steppe-brothers” is an ingenious way of referring to the Muscovites. The British reader will certainly prefer broad Americanism to broad Scots or Wessex, and the American reader will be used to what is by now a convention. We should be grateful that Wilson found the task just possible.

Every serious novel,” the Professor tells his students, “is à thèse. But the thesis is always the same, except in novels à thèse.” And the thesis is: Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto. All the same, some things strike us as more alien than others. We doubt that Goethe was wholly sincere when he said, of his Wilhelm Meister, that a rich manifold life brought close to our eyes ought to be enough without any express tendency. (Though it is the sort of remark a writer does well to throw in the face of the thesis-hunter.) Decent writers veer away from the role laid down for them by Stalin, for example: to engineer, as it were, the soul of the New Man. Still, one way of suggesting an implication, if not a thesis, is to invoke some other literary work whose tendency is itself not all that express. The Engineer of Human Souls brings to mind an authorial comment in Middlemarch: “There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deepseated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men.” What better check on general doctrine than the poet’s and the novelist’s “small stories,” the kind that Josef Skvorecky recounts with such verve and generosity?

  1. *

    See Milan Kundera, “The Tragedy of Central Europe” (NYR, April 26): “If all the reviews in France or England disappeared, no one would notice it, not even their editors.”

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