The Engineer of Human Souls

by Josef Škvorecký

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917

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 marries a prosperous businessman, and Smiricky goes on a romantic excursion to Paris with his new lover, Irene Svensson.

In the course of his day-to-day activities, Smiricky’s mind returns to his youth in his hometown, Kostelec. This set of recollections creates, within the frame narrative, an emotionally intense memory narrative covering a brief time, from 1942 to 1944, thirty years in the past. Against a horrifying backdrop of world war, bombings of Europe, concentration camps, and random local instances of Nazi brutality, Smiricky’s enthusiastic skirt chasing, raucous camaraderie, and amateur heroics shine in memory’s spotlight. The ugly face of his uncertain future, the closure of Czech universities and his subsequent machining of parts for Messerschmitt fighter planes, pales in the rosy hues of the memories of his first love, Nadia Jirouskova. These Kostelec youths are unmindful of the ghastly historical moment they endure. As Smiricky ironically observes, “we were young and free in that awful dictatorship, and we had no respect for its glories.”

Another memory narrative reveals Smiricky’s more mature awareness of personal fears and political atrocities. Loosely linked experiences from the time of his postwar departure from Kostelec through the development of his writing career, his expatriation, and his first years in Toronto are unified by accounts of secret agents, informers, political persecution, censorship, and the ongoing resistance to Communist control within and beyond Czech borders.

A narrative of letters, individually fixed in time and space but appearing out of chronological order, provides biographical sketches of Smiricky’s hometown friends since World War II. Since 1942, their lives have taken diverse courses. Jan Prouza, the poet, stayed in Czechoslovakia, futilely resisting censorship. Prema Skocopole escaped to Australia, where he was plagued by homesickness for the rest of his life. Nadia died of tuberculosis shortly after the war and Rebecca survived a concentration camp and emigrated to Israel, only to lose her family to a terrorist’s bomb. In chapter 7, “Lovecraft,” this epistolary narrative becomes a necrology, a record of the deaths of most of Smiricky’s friends. The last letter shows Lojza, a Czech Babbitt, thriving in his homeland, benightedly singing the praises of socialism for peasants such as himself.

These four narratives alternate with irregular rhythms through the seven chapters of the novel. Each chapter is identified with a well-known literary figure: Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, and H.P. Lovecraft. These “heroes of the pen” provide literary rubrics for Smiricky’s history, and classroom discussions of their works establish his preoccupations of mind and spirit: war and peace, oppression and freedom, horror and beauty, fear and hope, loss and love, death and life. Although Smiricky’s forty-eight years have been more eventful than most lives, conventional plot and action are minimized by continuous narrative disjunctions and implied associative leaps. The drama of a man, “a living stream of consciousness,” is constructed with bits of thinking, feeling, and remembering—in response to life, death, love, fear, and art. The motion of a life is not to be captured in a linear plot or a single crystal of meaning. Like the world, like this novel, Smiricky’s life is a plethora of sensations, reflections, and experiences. His life eludes definition but is replete with significance. There is no one meaning in The Engineer of Human Souls for “something written well, as Ernest Hemingway once said, can have many meanings....”

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