I haven’t seen much in print — although the late Michael Kaufman of the New York Times prepared a worthy obit that was duly published — on the recent death of the great Czech emigre writer Josef Skvorecky, who died on January 3rd in Canada, his adopted country. Another bad sign for the state of the culture, because Skvorecky was a major writer, perhaps even a great writer, and for extras he contributed mightily to the salvation of Czech culture, and when nobody was looking he wrote a series of mystery books, and even a mystery book about mysteries. I was a big fan of his, and some years ago I tried and failed to get his mysteries on television.
Every few years I reread his masterpiece, The Engineer of Human Souls. It’s one of the most important books ever written about culture and freedom, and it’s as contemporary as tomorrow morning. The English language edition was appropriately published in 1984, and it moves back and forth between the University of Toronto, where a young Czech refugee is teaching English Lit, and Communist Czechoslovakia. The university class includes specimens from various corners of the multiculti universe, from an Arab Marxist to a pleasant and totally uncultured local rich kid who excels at hockey. He dates a pretty Czech girl who tries to get him interested in the struggle for freedom in her native land, but he doesn’t get it. In her words, “he knows nothing from nothing,” and she can’t keep up the relationship.
The book’s chapters are one word each, the last name of great writers of English, and the key chapter is “Conrad.” At a certain point, the professor delivers an impassioned analysis of Heart of Darkness — and points out that the description of Kurtz’s house, with the skulls on the fenceposts, is a perfect description of Stalin, even though it was writeten before Stalin even came to power. He looks at the students, and sees glazed-over eyes and blank faces. They have no idea what he’s talking about.
Skorecky tells this tale so elegantly that you can’t resist laughing out loud, even though you know it’s tearing him up. Those who fled totalitarian regimes and came to North America went through such scenes repeatedly, and he’s got the perfect words, delivered with the perfect touch, to describe what and how they felt. The counterpoint scenes in Prague drive home the point: if the West knows nothing from nothing, you can’t expect Western countries to fight for the freedom of the poor bastards “over there.”
The title, The Engineer of Human Souls,” comes from Stalin himself, who used it to describe the intellectuals’ proper mission in a Communist state: indoctrinate the masses so that they accepted the tyrant’s every order. It turned out that Western intellectuals did this without being asked, and Western citizens, by failing to inform themselves about the real facts of the world, joined the herd of docile sheep.
There is much more to Skvorecky, who created a Czech detective, a lovable overweight schlemiel named Lt. Boruvka. Let’s just say he’s no Sherlock Holmes, but he knows how to investigate murders, and he gets his man — and even his woman, on a lucky day — more often than not, and in the process tells us a lot about Communist bureaucracy in the late stages of the failure of the Soviet system.
And then there’s his little contribution to the Baker Street Irregulars, that international association of Sherlock lovers. Father Knox, a brilliant Catholic theologian best known for a very important book on “Enthusiasm,” was also a member, and authored the basic rules — the “ten commandments” — for murder mysteries, which included things like the limits on false identities, secret passageways, and the like. So Skovrercky, with his delightful wit and playful mind, wrote Sins for Father Knox, a collection of short stories in each of which at least one of Father Knox’s commandments is violated. Skovercky can’t resist taunting the reader, every so often sticking in a little italicized line saying something like “by now you should have figured out which rule has been broken,” heh.
Finally, there’s his legacy, which extends well beyond his books. He had a radio show on VOA, and it consisted of him reading the classics of Czech literature. Just that. No thumb sucking, no commentary, just the literature.
Shortly after the wall came down, I visited Prague and asked a professor at the university about Skovercky. “He saved the Czech language with his radio show,” the prof said. “Under Communism, public language degenerated, and words simply disappeared, or changed their meanings. He reminded us what the language really was.”
We could do with that ourselves. Meanwhile, take the time to read some of this great man’s works; he really was a wonder.