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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 …

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