The Engineer of Human Souls Essay - Critical Essays

Josef Škvorecký

Critical Context

Josef kvorecký won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980, and The Engineer of Human Souls was awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Award for Literature in 1984. Since he emigrated to Canada, kvorecký’s reputation as a novelist has grown rapidly in the West. His warm, humorous, and melancholy treatments of life, love, and politics are frequently compared to the cool ironies of his countryman Milan Kundera, to the autobiographical narratives of Czesaw Miosz, or to the depictions of terror and totalitarianism in the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Daniel Smiricky is also the protagonist of several other kvorecký novels: Zbabelci (1958; The Cowards, 1970) and Prima sezona (1975; The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life, 1982) and two untranslated, Tankovy prapor (1971; the tank corps) and Mirakl (1972). kvorecký’s first novel, The Cowards, though banned for depicting both Germans and Russians as less than heroic, established his reputation in Czechoslovakia. When he left in 1968, kvorecký was one of the nation’s most popular novelists and a prolific editor, translator, essayist, and screenwriter as well.

Both The Cowards and The Swell Season are set in the dramatic closing days of World War II, and both follow youthful Danny Smiricky, then an innocent amid chaos, chasing beautiful girls relentlessly and blowing his saxophone in rebellion. The narratives of both novels are limited to narrow parameters of time and space and provide more straightforward exposition of plot and more conventional treatment of characters than does The Engineer of Human Souls.

The protagonists of the two novellas in Bassaxofon (1967; The Bass Saxophone, 1977) and the young hero of Lvice (1969; Miss Silver’s Past, 1973) each bear a strong family resemblance to Smiricky with their respective enthusiasms for jazz, beautiful women, and literary freedom. The seemingly improvisational narrative flow of The Bass Saxophone anticipates the subtle emotional and intellectual fusions of The Engineer of Human Souls.

With its innovative narrative techniques and challenging visions of life, art, and politics, The Engineer of Human Souls has taken its place among outstanding postmodern novels. Like most major works of world literature, its art reaches beyond national borders, transcends cultures, soars over Iron Curtains, and defies ideological dogmatisms to address an international audience, all humanity.