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I love Czech literature. Writers from that region have a wonderful ability to talk about nothing and everything at the same time, all wrapped up in a warm dark humour that reveals a great love of life. Perhaps it’s a twentieth century tradition that stems from the writing of the humorist Jaraslav Hasek and his greatest gift to Czech literature, ‘The good soldier Svejk’? Perhaps the origin is earlier and beyond my knowledge? But the influence can be seen in the work of Ivan Klima, Karel Capek, Bohumal Hrabal, and probably countless more I’ve never even heard of. I’ve always got half an eye out looking for writers in a similar vein, a search that somehow led me to miss what was already under my nose.

‘The Engineer of Human Souls’ by Josef Skvorecky has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for some time, probably a couple of years. I’d bought it on recommendation, but the ominous sounding title (a reference to Stalin’s opinion of a writers function) plus a hefty 571 page count, well above my normal comfort zone, had seen me passing it by for newer purchases on a fairly regular basis. And what a glorious book I was ignoring.

The story revolves around Danny, a jazz loving writer from Czechoslovakia, living in exile in Canada and working as a university lecturer in literature. The parallels with Skvorecky’s own life are very strong, to the point where the book comes close to a Japanese I-novel in style. The narrative shifts between Danny’s current life amongst the Czech émigré in Canada and significant periods in his past, all neatly tied together with letters from those he knew from his homeland who have taken refuge in other parts of the world. As the story progresses, we learn the different paths chosen by Danny and his friends during wartime, and how their lives pan out. Much is revealed as the characters live through ever changing times: democracy, Nazi rule, communism and for the lucky ones who escape, exile.

The subtitle to ‘The Engineer of Human Souls’ is: An entertainment on the old themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death. But that reveals only the tip of this book’s iceberg. How a seemingly meandering tale, with a fairly basic plot can say so much is a testament to the skill of Skvorecky.

Familiar Czech literary obsessions of food, wine, women and song make regular appearances, and at times Danny’s laid back attitude to life is reminiscent of the ‘good soldier’ himself. But there is much more under the surface. Bravery, cowardice, motivation and duty are put under the microscope as we learn of Danny’s wartime experiences working in a Messerchmitt factory, and his flirtations with the resistance movement. Flirtations that are fed more by desires towards impressionable young girls than desire to do the right thing. This proves to be an enduring attraction to Danny, as his older self becomes ever closer to a young student in his class.

Life under Nazi rule, the communist regime, and abroad as an exile are subtly compared. Contrast skilfully made between the younger man living under oppression and fighting against it in his own way and the older wiser man amused by the attraction of totalitarian states to those who have no experience, or real understanding, of them.

This is a bibliophile’s book as well. The discussions Danny has with his students’ flow throughout the story, and literary references abound. The book is even divided into seven chapters named after famous authors. The result is a book that moves to the love of literature, as well as the love of life.

I’m still undecided if this book has crossed the line to becoming a masterpiece or not, I need a little longer to mull that over. But it is a fantastic read: warm but cynical, naïve but knowing, straightforward but complex, a book full of contradictions, but one that never stops being a joy.
Added by Kenny_Shovel
11 years ago on 11 January 2007 17:02