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Josef Škvorecký: Príbeh inzenýra lidských dus (The Engineer of Human Souls)

Škvorecký calls this work an entertainment on the themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death. It tells the story of Danny Smiricky, whom we first met in The Cowards, who is, of course, Škvorecký’s alter ego. Smiricky, like Škvorecký, left Czechoslovakia in 1968 for Canada. He has become a professor of American literature at Edenvale College, near Toronto. In all this he resembles Škvorecký to a T. He (Škvorecký/Smiricky) is so enamoured of American lit that the seven chapters are called Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad and Lovecraft (and, yes, I am well aware that Conrad is not American), superficially, at least, because they are the authors he happens to be teaching in that chapter.

The key theme of the novel is his exile or, more specifically, how his Czechness and his Canadianness mesh (or, on occasions, don’t mesh). The Czech bit remains very strong. He has contacts with his old country, in the form of letters, reminiscences and contacts with assorted characters – Czechs, ex-Czechs, those with Czech relations. These Czechs may be good (friends and colleagues) or bad (secret agents spying on him and loony terrorists). But it is his Czech past which defines him as he thinks back to his past constantly – his wartime activities, his loves, his growing-up, his friends back home. Indeed, his contemporary existence, while it seems to give him considerable pleasure and allows Škvorecký to poke fun at academia and Canadians and bash Communist Czechoslovakia, is swallowed up by his past, which remains more alive, more vibrant than his present.

This remains the most satisfying of Škvorecký’s novels because he is makes such a telling comparison between Communist Czechoslovakia and the liberal democracy of Canada in a manner that, while critical of Communism, is more concerned at stressing some of the essential differences between the cultures and also because he shows more effectively that it takes more than a cheque to remove the Czech.

Publishing history

First published in Czech by Sixty-Eight Publishers, Toronto 1977
First published in English by Knopf 1984
Translated by Paul Wilson