Josef Skvorecky
(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

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Josef Skvorecky (1924)

Priben Inzennyra Lidskych Dusi/ The Engineer of Human Souls (1977) is a multi-layered comic novel of sorts that mainly takes place inside the chaotic landscape of the protagonist's memory, running back and forth between the Nazist occupation of Czechoslovakia, life under communism and life among the expatriates.
It's like Skvorecky wrote three or four novels and then shuffled the chapters. The novel is divided into seven parts, each of which is dedicated to a USA writer, the writer that the protagonist, a professor of literature, is discussing with his students.
The various scenes always see the comic side of things, despite the fact that discuss the historical tragedies of a tragic nation. The novel is, in fact, a long parade of practical jokes played by God or destiny on the silly lives of powerless men and women.

Danny Smiricky is a Czech novelist who has lived for seven years in exile in Canada during the 1970s and teaches at a college. One of his students is Irene, to whom he is morbidly attracted. He reminisces about the war, when he was chasing a girl, Nadia, who was fascinated by the resistance and in particular by an act of sabotage carried out by Dan's friend Prema. To seduce her, Danny came up with a silly plan of sabotage, taking advantage of the fact that they were both working in a German factory. While he jumps back and forth in time, he also reads letters dated from the time of World War II. He tells the funny story of his father's leg, which smelled like Gorgonzola because of an infection he got in the war. Back to the present, he is afraid that the Czech secret police is sending agents after him, as strange Czech people approach him with silly excuses. His best friend in exile is a fellow Czech, Dotty, who tells the story of how one of her friends, Lida, had become a prostitute for the Nazis. The sabotage failed miserably because Dan and Nadia were discovered by the foreman of the factory, who then mercifully helped them fix the sabotage to save their skins. Some letters are dated from 1976 by a young Canadian left-wing activist, Booker, and addressed to Lida, the former prostitute who still lives in Prague.
Another student is Veronika. Another professor is Rocky, who teaches avantgarde theater by having his students physically attack him. Some letters are dated from the early communist era. One is from Prema who emigrated in Australia. Back to the nazist era, Dan was so scared after the foreman found out about his plans that he contemplated joining a seminary. He visits Prema's father, Skocdopole, who tells him how he fought against the communists during the revolution. Dan reminisces about Pytlic, who worked for the nazis during the war and then for the communists after the liberation. Back to the nazi era, Dan has loved Irena for six years, with the exception of Nadia and Marie. Margitka is Dan's lover in Canada. She is 40-year old and is married to a man in a wheelchair.

Margitka suspects that they are being spied and confesses that she was faithful to her husband during the ten years that he was in jail as a political prisoner under communism. Another former political prisoner, Bocar, tells the story of how they were arrested for plotting anti-communist activities and they all confessed for fear of being shot.

Back to the time of the German occupation, Nadia is worried about Dan, convinced that Dan will soon be arrested unless he hides in the forest and joins the resistance. Dan takes advantage of Nadia's feelings towards his heroism and finally has sex with her, thereby losing his virginity (on a cold winter night during which Nadia fell sick). However he was also in love with Irena and Marie, both of whom he had courted for years unsuccessfully. (In a letter he receives after the war a friend informs him that Marie is pregnant and getting married with Franta).

Four years later, under Soviet occupation (instead of German occupation), Prema and Dan were again plotting an act of sabotage. It failed pathetically like the previous one, and a lot of the conspirators were arrested. Prema managed to flee, and Dan was not implicated, but Dan's father was arrested.

Back to the present, Dan is attending a party at which Veronika makes a fool of herself, despite being the girlfriend of Perceval/Percy. Percy's sister Irene provokes Dan while smoking marijuana. Dan comments that in that age and place everything is possible, but how about something nice.

After the war, Dan met Irena again. She was now married to a jealous man who had just discovered a book that Dan had written for Irena, detailing not only his failed attempts at seducing her but (more damagingly) Irena's many love affairs. The husband first invited Dan in and sarcastically left them alone, but then returned to throw him out. Dan had time to tell Irena that he would always love her, but Irena coldly replied that she would never sleep with him.

Back to the Nazist era, at the factory Dan was summoned by the German-American controller Uippelt. Dan panicked when he realized that Uippelt had found out about the sabotage, but then Uippelt simply gave him a secret assignment, revealing that he too was working against the Germans. Nonetheless Dan continued to live in fear, both for himself and for Nadia, who had fallen sick with tubercolosis and was not showing up at work anymore.

Back to the present, Booker writes his love to Lida from Toronto.

Back to the Canadian exile era, Dan meets fellow Czech emigrants at the party. They are conspiring to stage a coup in Czechoslovakia and he enrolls in the secret society. One of them is soon killed by a sniper, probably a killer hired by the Czech secret services.

Back to the Nazist era, a worried Dan was hanging out in front of Nadia's place, seeing only her fiance Franta but not Nadia. His old flame Marie made fun of him and revealed that she too had lost her virginity. That was at the beginning of the war. The book then jumps to the end of the war, when Franta helps both Nadia and Dan to hide. The foreman has been arrested for the attempted sabotage. Prema knows that the Germans have lost the war and don't really care anymore, and that there is a new enemy to fear: the Soviet army that is advancing.

One day Franta hit Dan so violently that he had to be hospitalized. Dan and everybody else thought that Franta had found out about his affair with Nadia, still formally engaged to Franta. Instead Franta told Dan that it was because Dan had endangered Nadia's life by involving her in the sabotage plan. Franta, a pure of heart, had not realized that Dan and Nadia had slept together.

Letters sent to Dan during the communist era by Prema from Australia and by the poet Jan, who debates what poetry should be under socialism.

Now the story is told by Dan while on a boat with a bunch of decadent Canadian friends, all of them stoned, including Irene. He defines himself a "living stream of consciousness" and in fact the description of the boat trip is interspersed with all sorts of reminiscences and letters.

Elsewhere, a drunk Milan tries to make love to Veronika, who is not interested. But someone sees her there and thinks that Milan succeeded.

Back to communist Czechoslovakia, Dan had learned of the execution of Prema's saboteurs during a train trip, sitting next to an old acquaitance, Uher, who had refused to hide Prema after the act of sabotage against the Germans. Dan recalled how he had helped Prema escape in time, but the others had all been captured and now executed. Dan was alive only because they had not betrayed him. Reading the distorted biography of Prema in the official newspaper, Dan was revolted but quickly realized that his old friend Uher was now a strong believer in communism and was accompanied by two sinister figures who started asking Dan about his contacts with Prema. Dan was just beginning to learn how dangerous the new masters were.

A letter by a friend written when Marie's daughter was seven-years old informs him that Marie would like to see him and gives him the days when Franta is not home. While Dan had secretely slept with Nadia, Franta had secretely slept with Marie.

After the end of the war, as he was going to the cinema with Irena, Dan saw that the communists had captured Uippelt. He rushed to tell them that Uippelt had saved his life and worked for the resistance too. But in vain. When he was finally allowed to visit Uippelt he found that the man had been beaten to death by his "interrogators".

A Rebecca was writing from Israel to thank Dan for what he did to help her and her son David when they were still in Czechoslovakia.

On the boat Irene finally offers herself to Dan, but Dan understands that the provoking blonde is actually still a virgin, and refuses her, without exactly knowing why. Then Dan starts telling her a story, the same story he tried to tell Marie's daughter Daniela, when he finally went to visit them. It's a funny story of an incident that happened when he and a friend tried to peek at a naked Marie in the public baths. But both stories (the one he tells Irene and the one he tried to tell Daniela, one interrupted by the other) are not completed because 1. he was interrupted by Marie while he was telling Daniela about the old incident, and 2. the novel just jumps to other scenes. All the readers are told is that Marie's naked body revealed something that no other woman had.

Dan met Nadia again almost towards the end of the war, when she was about to get married to Franta. Franta was not home and Nadia begged Dan to let her sleep with him. Nadia was very sick and fully aware of dying. Obviously she was very much in love with Dan, not knowing that Dan had only wanted her out of lust.
The tale is interspersed not only with letters addressed to Dan but also with the letters that Booker the left-wing activist writes to Lida, in which he shows that he believes to the letter to the Soviet propaganda.
Back to the communist time, Dan learns that the foreman who hid his sabotage to the Nazis was a member of a network of partisans. The reason he hid his sabotage was that he did not want their important plans to be derailed by the pathetic action of an amateur. Now he is fighting the Soviet invaders. It is the foreman who tells Dan that Franta married Marie after Nadia died.
Percy dumps Veronika after learning that she slept with Milan. They were having political arguments anyway. Irene thinks that the Czech man who slept with Veronika is Dan and stages a hysterical scene. Then Dan takes her virginity.
Dan learns that Uher was liquidated after he sided with Dubcek in the 1968 anti-Soviet uprising.
We learn from a newspaper article that Jan the poet had hanged himself, probably in protest for the 1968 crack-down.
Dan meets Uher again, this time in Canada. Dan is drunk and insults Uher the informer. But in reality Dan is not sure if Uher was spying on Dubcek or was honestly for Dubcek.
Milan reports that Veronika has gone insane.
Dan learns that Prema has died in a hurricane in Australia.
Rebecca writes from Israel and her son David and his wife were killed by a bomb.
Dotty tells Dan the truth about Booker's letters to Lida: she had arranged for Booker to pretend to be in love with Lida. It was a way to get Lida out of Chechoslovakia: pretend that a Canadian who was an orthodox communist had falled in love with Lida and wanted to marry her. Unfortunately Booker started writing letters that were "too" orthodox and the Czech police understood that it was merely a trick to convince the authorities to let Lida travel abroad.
Veronika sends a telegram to Dan that contains only one sentence: "I am a fool".
The last two chapters have fewer recollections and more chronicle of life in the emigre community of Canada.

(Translation by/ Tradotto da xxx)

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(Copyright © 2008 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )