The Engineer of Human Souls

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The Stalinist penchant for heroic epithets is mocked in the title of this humorously encyclopedic novel, which is based on a dictum attributed to Joseph Stalin himself: “As an engineer constructs a machine, so must a writer construct the mind of the New Man.” The Marxist-Leninist line, the vision of a reborn society hewing to the methodology of scientific Socialism, is exactly what Josef kvorecký sought to escape when he emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1968 following the Soviet invasion of his country and the downfall of Alexander Dubek’s reformist regime. As an emigrant to Canada, kvorecký’s autobiographical narrator, Danny Smiricky, naturally brings his past with him. It is a past that goes back to the German occupation of his country during World II; it is a past that he shares with other Czech emigrants in Toronto, where he teaches at the university in the mid-1970’s.

The courses which Smiricky teaches reflect his deep devotion to literature as a product and as an interpretation of history. Indeed, each of the novel’s seven long chapters bears for its title the name of a writer whom Smiricky (like his creator) admires: chapter 1, “Poe”; chapter 2, “Hawthorne”; chapter 3, “Twain”; chapter 4, “Crane”; chapter 5, “Fitzgerald”; chapter 6, “Conrad”; and chapter 7, “Lovecraft” (the last an indication, amply confirmed throughout, that kvorecký’s attitude toward literary history is not excessively pious). Each chapter, interweaving literature and life, includes reflections on a particular work by the writer who serves as the chapter’s presiding genius; there is often an ironic counterpoint between these literary antecedents and Smiricky’s experiences in Czechoslovakia and Canada.

While Smiricky’s passion for American literature (Conrad is the only exception) suggests the extent to which literature can “bring the news” even across barriers of language and culture, the very concept of literature is largely an alien one to his students, who often plagiarize from critics or buy their term papers and therefore cannot even begin to form a view of history and of their own experience. As his memories wander away from the classroom and back to his own callow youth in Czechoslovakia, it becomes apparent that he fears that his students will never learn the hard lessons of history and that everything in their clean, gleaming Toronto environment has conspired to shield them from the nexus between causality and responsibility. To them, he muses, everything is a motion picture, a representation of experience and not the experience itself. Neither human beings nor novels can be engineered, kvorecký’s ironic title implies, and the human mess of history has to be sorted through in all of its specificity, for as William Blake puts it in one of the six epigraphs to the novel: “To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit.”

Experience is particularized in The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love and Death (published in Canada in 1977 in Czech as Píbh inenýra lidských duí, in two volumes) by following Smiricky’s involvement in the histories of friends, colleagues, enemies, secret agents, and assorted other personalities who force the narrator into a profound awareness of his place in history. There are, for example, forty letters from nine different correspondents, many of whom do not figure in the numerous narrative strands of the novel but are there to interrupt Smiricky’s smooth, realistic retelling of the past. The letters constitute powerful, sometimes elusive, encapsulations of private and public autobiographies. These epistolary comments on Smiricky’s life present a counterweight to his own attitudes—on writing and literature in the case of the letters from Jan, a poet who decides not to emigrate and who eventually commits suicide. Different classes and types of people demonstrate in their letters the choices that Smiricky did not make or could not even consider—such as the simpleminded faith which Lojza reveals in his badly spelled and awkwardly phrased letters praising the Communist government for giving him the opportunity to work and to write. Yet Smiricky does not ridicule his old friend’s faith in...

(The entire section is 1774 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1349.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 1, 1984, p. 1.

The Nation. CCXXXIX, August 4, 1984, p. 86.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, September 27, 1984, p. 49.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, August 19, 1984, p. 9.

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Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 18, 1984, p. 143.

kvorecký, Josef. “Why the Harlequin?” in Cross Currents. III (1984), pp. 259-264.

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World Literature Today. LIV (1980). Special kvorecký issue.