The Engineer of Human Souls: An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, the Working Class, Secret Agents, Love and Death
Priscilla Galloway was an English consultant in Willowdale, Ontario.
Josef Skvorecky is a major Czech writer who emigrated to Canada after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He is now a professor of English at a suburban campus of the University of Toronto. Toronto translator Paul Wilson lived and worked in Czechoslovakia for ten years.
What would it be like to be an exile from your own native country, in a land where dangers no longer constantly surround you? What would it be like to bring memories of two controlling powers, Nazis and Communists, to Canada?
The Engineer of Human Souls is a huge, sprawling novel, full of cuts, flashbacks, and juxtapositions. Through first-person narrative, letters, and the occasional report, the reader gets to know Danny Smiricky, Czech writer in exile and professor of English on the outskirts of Toronto.
Names of authors on Smiricky’s major course form the titles of the seven chapters: Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Lovecraft. Each chapter includes class discussion about the author’s works and some wise pronouncements by the professor, counterpointed by his inner irreverent analysis and by his thoughts, which often return to his youth as a wartime factory conscript for Nazi Germany.
Smiricky relives his passion for the consumptive Nadia, who toiled beside him making brackets to hold the tail guns of Messerschmitts. If they countersank the bolt holes a little too deep, young Smiricky figured the vibration would shake the guns loose and the planes would be left defenceless. It might have worked, but Smiricky didn’t plan it well or coordinate it with others, nor did he anticipate the Germans’ thoroughness. Smiricky presents himself as totally unheroic, he devises his scheme mainly to shine in Nadia’s eyes.
Smiricky’s strange romance with Nadia, a proper Catholic girl engaged to a local man of her own working class, is set against the professor’s present-day attraction to his student Irene Svensson, daughter of a wealthy Toronto family.
This is a political novel, however, more than a romantic one. Smiricky is exuberant in Canada where he is not living under threat:
The Toronto skyline is more beautiful to me than the familiar silhouette of Prague Castle. There is beauty everywhere on earth, but there is greater beauty in those places where one feels that sense of ease which comes from no longer having to put off one’s dreams until some improbable future — a future inexorably shrinking away; where the fear which has pervaded one’s life suddenly vanished because there is nothing to be afraid of. Gone are the fears I shared with my fellows, because although the party exists here, it has no power, as yet....
I feel wonderful. I feel utterly and dangerously wonderful in this wilderness land.
Nonetheless the Czechs in Canada are continually reminded of the dictatorship at home. Smiricky is visited by a stream of police informers. He decides finally that for them informing has become a kind of art form; there is a ritual to the approach and the ensuing meeting. He has forgotten some of his former caution, however, and a couple of times goes to awkward lengths to save compromising a returning Czech.
The major female comic character is Dotty, a walking advertisement for sex, who is surprised and indignant, she says, when she is taken by a friend in Prague to a group sex party with the political police. Dotty is looking for a rich husband and finds one, almost as broadly caricatured as she is.
Czech publisher Mrs. Santner, in real life the novelist Zdena Salivarova and Josef Skvorecky’s wife, is usually disguised as a frump, although she show’s her womanly charms at a New Year’s Eve party. In fact, she does not care about appearance; she wears a wig to avoid spending time on her hair. The picture of Mrs. Santner, gleefully sending a smuggled anti-semitic Czech manuscript off to Moscow, is affectionately drawn.
The tragic immigrant experience is exemplified in Veronika, whose stage career was cut short in Communist Prague because one of her parents was Jewish. She cannot sing professionally in Canada, however, because of her accent. Veronika is passionate about political dangers which her naive Canadian boyfriend Percy cannot even perceive. In the end, Veronika goes back to her homeland; her final comment via cable to Smiricky is, “I’m a fool.”
Paul Wilson’s translation of the novel is smooth and skilful; the varying styles of different better-writers and speakers must have presented many challenges.
This large, complex novel won’t keep every reader’s interest consistently, but it is an important record of life in our time; through it, we can better value our own land.