The Engineer of Human Souls

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1774

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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 collectivism; indeed, the letters stand largely without comment, a record of other voices reminding the reader of how much the narrator has left out in his charming stories. The letters also obliquely reflect on the tremendous fellow feeling Smiricky has for nearly everyone who has touched his life; the correspondence frees him as narrator from sentimentality and self-conscious moralizing.

kvorecký, like Aristophanes—who is quoted in another of the novel’s epigraphs—is concerned with “the generations of Man” and how they have passed away. His narrator seems to remember them all and to fuse them to his present by urging upon his students a commitment to reading literature that involves probing the intricacies of individual lines and passages. As Anatole France, whose words are at the head of the novel’s epigraphs, puts it: “Truth lies in the nuances.” This is an incredibly detailed work, brim full with the sad and comic elements of life that are alluded to in the epigraph from Viktor Dyk:

On days when sadness came, I surrendered to laughter;Having surrendered, I became gloomy.

As a corrective to Dyk’s view, however, the reader learns to heed Ezra Pound’s injunction:

What thou Lovest well remains,the rest is drossWhat thou lov’st well shall not be reft from theeWhat thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.

The emigrant loses much in his transplantation to a new society, yet the essence of what he loves remains in the nuances of the experience he can recollect. For kvorecký, the issue is how the emigrant remains loyal to that past while fully living in the present, as his resourceful narrator manages to do. The whole question of loyalty, brought up in the epigraph from Albert Camus, is one the complacent Canadians in Smiricky’s classroom will probably never have to face. Their society is given to them, and much of the novel turns on their foreign professor’s alien teaching about an American literature that is close to home and yet bizarre because they cannot imagine war, for example, as a reality determining a society’s and an individual’s fate, his sense of love, of class, and of life—in short, of all the “old themes” listed in the novel’s subtitle. Thus, a Canadian undergraduate insists that Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is not primarily about war but about a youth’s “identity crisis.” It is on such narrow interpretative ground that Smiricky essays his leaps into his expansive past as a way of circling back to his present with a renewed sense of his “true heritage.”

It may seem at times that Smiricky is merely devaluing the Canadian present, but for all of his disappointment with students he continues his dialogues with them and even makes them the focal point of his past, in the sense that in their youth he can more truly see his own, and through their ignorance he is motivated to sharpen his understanding of history. A few of the students, moreover, notice how they have quickened their professor’s middle-aged responses. As a result, he must contend with a female disciple and a male opponent of his ideas. Together, these students represent a land Smiricky obviously cherishes for providing the conditions in which he can live out his history and in which other emigrants can at least argue about theirs—a privilege denied to them on their native soil.

As many reviewers have noted, the most moving and fully realized character in the novel is Nadia, the lower-class girl with whom Smiricky falls in love during the war. He tries to impress her by boasting about his work as a saboteur, even though the two occasions on which he does act against the Germans are tragicomic failures. First, he tries to help his friend Prema blow up a German warehouse, and then he tries to weaken German warplanes by producing defective parts. In each instance, the consequences of his actions have not been thought out and are anything but what he hopes from his “heroic” Resistance activity, for which he dreads taking responsibility. Many people will suffer—indeed, some will be executed for the explosion at the warehouse—and the structural weaknesses of the aircraft parts are so easily detectable that Smiricky and others spend anguished hours trying to cover up the stupid sabotage.

In a Toronto classroom some thirty years after his ill-fated romance with Nadia, the narrator is still fascinated with young women, although most of them would not seem to have the slightest connection with the simple Czechoslovakian girl whose passionate directness he so much admired—except perhaps that, like her, they are innocent of any nuances of language and history. In this profoundly historical novel, kvorecký pays close attention to the huge differences between historical contexts, between Czechoslovakia and Canada, but, in another respect, all the contexts are one, are history, so that Larry Hakim—Smiricky’s fierce Arab-American expatriate and Vietnam War resister—is compared to William Faulkner’s Thomas Sutpen, a character in Absalom, Absalom! (1936), a novel about the displacement of human character in history. Sutpen’s trouble is innocence, and so is Hakim’s, his professor insists. The teacher is telling his student, who just might eventually get the point, that both of them are, in fact, bound to each other in spite of all the differences in their ages and backgrounds.

The Engineer of Human Souls is a novel of emigration par excellence. It emanates from the capacious mind of a man who has affirmed the reality of both his past and present, his old country and his new nation. Unlike some of the other Czech emigrants—one of whom dies in Toronto trying to build a letter bomb in still another desperate act of sabotage, this time aimed at his homeland’s Communist government—kvorecký has chosen not to fight the battles of the past again but to see how he fits (and does not fit) into the present. He has told one interviewer that even if a miracle took place in Czechoslovakia (presumably one that would mean freedom of expression), he would not return. In this great novel, one of the finest of our era, the author has remained faithful to all the particularities of history. This is a work of acceptance, a magnificent effort to make all of human experience meaningful, even that part of it that the author and his characters would like to change.


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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 115

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Critical Essays