The Engineer of Human Souls

by Josef Škvorecký

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

The subtitle of The Engineer of Human Souls sweepingly declares it “An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love, and Death.” Central to all these concerns, however, is kvorecký’s ironic use of the phrase “the engineer of human souls.” The author asserts that this was Joseph Stalin’s definition of the writer: “As an engineer constructs a machine, so must the writer construct the mind of the New Man.” Smiricky is a writer who is not writing at the moment. He is a writer without an audience, for his work is banned in his homeland and ignored in Canada—even by Czech exiles. His plight poses the most pressing questions of the novel. What is the writer’s place in today’s world? When all the themes in this world are “old,” why write? When imperialisms, personal and political, persist and when Eastern writers are not free to write and Western readers are free not to read, then why write? Smiricky himself offers an answer in his discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “perhaps because so much that is human is still alien to so many people.” The Engineer of Human Souls, as a whole, exemplifies the poet Prouza’s vision of the writer’s special talent for “mimesis,” his ability to represent the “individual uniqueness of man, who lives out what everyone lives out: his unique variation on the general theme.” The writer must continue to resist suppression, fight audience indifference, and struggle to disclose the universal truths in particular experience.

Reader indifference is as threatening to the writer as his own despair and ennui. Such indifference is made real in Smiricky’s classroom. Eating their lunches, painting their fingernails, and courting covertly, students from every walk of life and nations around the world listen passively with seldom a live thought, a sympathetic ear, or a feeling response. When active, they are generally mouthing the purloined words of the critics to whom they turn for facile analyses. However powerful the works they read, Smiricky’s students seem to fail to recognize and value writing’s “secret ability, inaccessible to the reason, to awaken in the reader the joy of recognition....” The Engineer of Human Souls calls the writer to write, against all oppositions, all apathy. The novel also challenges the reader to read with all the powers of his mind and spirit. kvorecký’s complex, fragmented narrative with its constructions of multiple perspectives, evocations of times, re-creations of places, and interpretations of human experiences intentionally coerces readers into a more active role in the creation of meaningfulness. Succinctly, Smiricky sermonizes “unmarxistleninistically” on the need for this special kind of literary coercion: “The real religion of life, the true idolatry of literature, can never flourish in democracies, in those vague, boring kingdoms of the freedom not to read, not to suffer, not to desire, not to know, not to understand.” With his fable of an individual consciousness, kvorecký may move men to read, to suffer, to desire, to know, and to understand. When both writer and reader move beyond unenlightened self-interest, national allegiances, and political ideologies, they move closer to the universal truths which may make it possible to “construct the mind of the New Man.” Such writing and such reading are imperatives, “because so much that is human is still alien to so many people.”

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