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The Engineer of Human Souls

By (author) Josef Skvorecky
Translated by Patricia M. Wilson
Format: Hardback
Publisher: Vintage Publishing, London, United Kingdom
Imprint: Chatto & Windus
Published: 1st Jan 1900
Dimensions: w 140mm h 230mm
Weight: 742g
ISBN-10: 070112931X
ISBN-13: 9780701129316
Barcode No: 9780701129316

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Kirkus US
As Cabrera Infante has lately done with Cubans, and Salman Rushdie with Pakistanis, so does Skvorecky with Czechs in this enormously disillusioned, constantly readable, and buoyantly happy/sad novel: a picture of temporary nationalism (embodied in this case by immigrants) that captures the particular genius of a people who've come through terrible history with the help of luminous personal gaiety. The protagonist of Skvorecky's book is Daniel Smiricky - like his creator a Czech-immigrant novelist who fled his homeland after the Russian 1968 invasion and who now teaches English literature at a Toronto university. Is this closeness of author and hero a distraction? No - because Skvorecky has more important things to do than put a lot of elaborate distance between himself and his alter-ego. First, he tells the flashback tale of a young Danny sabotaging a machine gun mount in the Nazi aircraft factory where he works (involuntarily) during the war - something he initially undertakes to win the admiration of tubercular Nadia, who's working at the next drill press. Skvorecky also provides a grand mosaic of Toronto's Czech immigrant circle, both its elite and its clowns - dreamers who are at the same time obsessively clear-sighted; he vividly evokes their lives and loves, including their Canadian spouses - who can't quite deal with all this melancholy humor and candor. (There are several hilarious, thought-provoking scenes of arguments filtered through translation.) Moreover, Skvorecky assembles a repository of fictionalized letters to Smiricky - from those who left Czechoslovakia early or late or not at all; beneath the surfaces here are indelible stories about faith and friendships lost. And finally there are the book's deeply attractive, natural, intelligent women - who emerge in a truly wonderful group-portrait: Nadia, the girl back in Kostelec; Veronika, a bitter young emigree in Toronto; Smiricky's innocently beautiful Canadian student/ lover Irene; and Mrs. Santner, the valiant publisher Of books in Czech. Ultimately, however, apart from all the things Skvorecky does so well here - academic novel, erotic memoir, scatological comedy, political philosophy - the great virtue of the book is its tempered-by-the-furnace, lyrically comic humaneness: "Before God a profound democracy rules. Meaning is a compulsive neurosis. It is only when the neurosis goes away, or when we are cured of it, that we can live. And go on doing everything we did before. For the fun, the delight of it." Few contemporary novels have mixed impurities of high and low content as smoothly and unselfconsciously as this one. Unlike Milan Kundera's impressive but less human or spontaneous collages, this epic novel remains true to its blend of awful sadness and profound relief throughout: it's a generous, impulsive, poignant/funny masterpiece. (Kirkus Reviews)