(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Daniel Smiricky, the narrator of The Engineer of Human Souls, writes by force of circumstance. He fled his native Czechoslovakia at the time of the Russian invasion, in 1968, and resettled in Toronto, Canada. Although he feels “utterly and dangerously wonderful in this wilderness land,” he is, nevertheless, a man on the margins of two cultures, East European and Western, belonging totally to neither. In 1976, he finds himself in the anomalous position of a Czech teaching American and English literature to blase Canadian and foreign students who are generally ignorant of world history and politics and largely insensitive to any language. As a writer, he is without a literary audience; as a teacher, he is without literary proselytes. Sadness pervades his life. Smiricky laments his disconnection from his past and dwells poignantly on the days of his ardent youth, days full of precious friends, loves, adventures, and delights. He mourns the plight of his homeland under German, then Russian, domination since World War II.

As Smiricky’s mind continually scans his own life, past and present, East and West, his personal narration constructs a historical, literary, and political picture of the last thirty years of international events. The Engineer of Human Souls’ unusual narrative structure consists of brief segments of experience, each only a few pages in length, each isolated like the separate frames of a film before it comes to life as a “moving picture.” Punctuated by black dots at the center of the page, these discrete segments about different times, places, and people cumulatively build separate and distinct narratives, unified through Smiricky’s consciousness. The present-tense frame narrative of the novel depicts Smiricky teaching his classes, meeting with his academic colleagues, participating in the Czech emigre community, attending holiday parties, and starting an affair with one of his students. Although unendingly interrupted by moments from the past, this frame narrative proceeds in discernible chronological order: from the dreary opening sophomore literature class on Edgar Allan Poe in the winter of 1976 to the novel’s comic resolutions in the spring of 1977, when Smiricky’s friend Dotty...

(The entire section is 917 words.)