Originally published in Czech in 1972 by the author’s own Canadian-based 68 Publishers (an important outlet for Czech writing prior to the bloodless overthrow of the Communist government in 1989), THE MIRACLE GAME is part detective story, part history lesson, and part satirical romp, a dissident as well as dissonant work which freely and cheerfully transgresses literary, temporal, and spatial borders. Covering twenty years and two continents, the novel centers on two times and places. There are the two years during which young Danny Smiricky, the hero of four other Skvorecky novels, teaches at a school in provincial Hronov, recovering from a bad case of clap, fending off the sexual advances of a seventeen-year-old student, and trying not to run afoul of Party policies, and there is the heady period of the Prague Spring of 1968 and its immediate aftermath, when Danny, now a writer of operettas, detective stories, and one unpublished satirical novel, carries on love affairs, observes purges and counter-purges, and becomes involved in his Catholic friend Juzl’s efforts to uncover the facts behind a miracle at Hrovna twenty years before—a miracle which Danny would have witnessed had he not been half-asleep at the time.
Such a summary does not begin to do justice to the intricacy of Skvorecky’s fascinating, many-stranded novel. For all its breadth and shifting narrative focus, the novel never does explain the mystery of the miracle which becomes...
The Miracle Game (first published in 1972 as Mirákl) takes its title from a controversial event that occurs in 1949 in the little Czech town of Hronov: During Sunday service at the Chapel of the Virgin Mary under Mare’s Head, a statue of Saint Joseph bows to the congregation. As miracles go, this one hardly ranks with the parting of the Red Sea, but in a small town in a small Communist country it generates much excitement. A wayfaring stranger wearing a rucksack bolts from the building, the old ladies in the audience fly into a frenzy, and Vixi Koziskova thinks Saint Joseph is pointing the finger of guilt at her for sleeping with her social sciences instructor the night before. The young instructor, one Danny Smiricky, hung over and recovering from a bout of gonorrhea (contracted elsewhere), nods off and misses the whole event.
Did a miracle occur? Yes, says the priest (Father Josef Doufal) and his congregation as they go marching about the town shouting hosannas. No, says the Communist regime, whose investigative team quickly exposes the priest’s hidden set of pulleys and arrests him. There seems, however, to be some confusion about whether the pulleys are rigged to the statue of Saint Joseph or to the statue of the Virgin Mary (after all, it is her chapel). Did the communist regime plan the whole thing in an effort to discredit religion and then botch the job? Or…or…or did a miracle occur? Why did that stranger wearing a rucksack (secret police agent Josef Pecen) run from the building so fast? And why, counting the author, osef Skvoreck (pronounced skvor-ECH-ky), are there so many Josefs involved in this novel?
On a superficial level, these are the kinds of questions that The Miracle Game raises. The main plot has all the attractions of a mystery novel, showing the influence of Skvoreck ’s earlier experience in writing whodunits, most of them featuring his mournful detective Lieutenant Boruvka, who is always running up against the Communist bureaucracy and secret police. Several collections of stories starring the good detective have been translated, including The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (1987; all dates are for translations) and The End of Lieutenant Boruvka (1990). Another collection of stories, Sins for Father Knox (1989), features Eve Adams, a touring Czech nightclub singer who solves crimes wherever she performs around the world (Suzi Kajetanova in The Miracle Game bears some resemblance to her).
There seems to be crime everywhere, and one of the ironies of The Miracle Game is that a miracle is investigated as a crime and the investigators are themselves criminals. Right away, this twist on the detective genre makes a subtle comment about the nature of the Czech Communist regime, whose secret police specialize in pulling out fingernails and kicking in heads with hard-toed boots. The biggest criminals seem to be those who can justify their actions with a high-minded ideology.
Another irony is that the novel’s real investigator is the autobiographical character Danny Smiricky, writer of comic operas. Danny Smiricky is another character who has appeared in several Skvoreck works—a youthful Danny in The Cowards (1971), The Swell Season (1975), and The Bass Saxophone (1979), and an older Danny in The Engineer of Human Souls (1984), where, like Skvoreck , he is an expatriate Czech writer teaching at the University of Toronto. In The Engineer of Human Souls, perhaps Skvoreck ’s best work, the mature Danny is almost in despair that his North American students are so naïve—indeed, relatively unaware and unconcerned—about modern history and the communist ideology.
Like The Engineer of Human Souls, The Miracle Game provides an education in these subjects via the example of Czechoslovakia, located conveniently (or otherwise) at the crossroads of modern ideological conflict. Like that novel also, The Miracle Game has a large cast of characters difficult to keep track of and moves back and forth in time in a manner that some reviewers found confusing. Other reviewers found some of the novel’s material gratuitous and disconnected. Yet Skvoreck ’s techniques can be justified by the enormous complexity of his...