Here in Canada

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Paul Wilson
    Chatto, 571 pp, £9.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2931 X
  • The Governess by Patricia Angadi
    Gollancz, 181 pp, £8.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 575 03485 8
  • The Anderson Question by Bel Mooney
    Hamish Hamilton, 185 pp, £8.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 241 11456 X
  • The Centre of the Universe is 18 Baedekerstrasse by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
    Hamish Hamilton, 199 pp, £8.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 241 11492 6

Josef Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and is now Professor of English at Erindale College in Canada. His new novel is about a Czech called Danny Smiricky who also emigrated to Canada in 1968 and who has become Professor of American Literature at Edenvale College. The invented name, ‘Edenvale’, illustrates Smiricky’s mixed feelings about his academic life in Canada: it might seem idyllic, paradisal, to a Czech who spent his youth under the Nazis and then the Communists, but he often catches himself thinking that his students and fellow teachers are too innocent, like Adam before the Fall, too naive, too credulous.

Life was more exciting and purposeful, more serious and more gleeful, in Czechoslovakia when Smiricky was young. About a quarter of this long novel consists of reminiscences thrust in, apparently at random, to interrupt the Canada-based narrative. Smiricky’s memory is jogged by old letters from the friends of his youth, moving about the world, more urgently alive than the Canadians of the 1970s. Rebecca, the only survivor of a family of Jewish sisters, went to Israel. Prema, once an anti-Nazi saboteur, went to Australia but returned to Czechoslovakia in 1968 (just missing Smiricky on his way out) and wrote to him from their hometown, giving the news (mostly bad) about their old friends, and concluding: ‘Well, buddy, I’ve kind of run off at the mouth here but, you know, there’s always something going on here, not like in Australia where it’s big news when a dog dies. Write me what it’s like in Canada ... ’ Prema and Smiricky were involved in reckless acts of anti-Nazi sabotage when they were boys. Middle-aged life in the White Commonwealth is more comfortable but less thrilling.

Smiricky performs his duties as a professor with skill and energy. Each of the seven long chapters contains a passage describing him at work with his students, discussing a famous author – and the name of each author acts as a title for one of the chapters, influencing its tone and content. They are Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stephen Crane, Scott Fitzgerald, Conrad – and H.P. Lovecraft. The last-named crops up almost as a joke when Smiricky’s girlfriend buys some farcical ‘sex-aids’ at a ‘Lovecraft’ shop: he tells her to read H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories in much the same way he recommends students to try a James Bond novel. All the same, H.P. Lovecraft – with his fatuous ghoulishness, revived and found modish in the 1970s – brings his influence to bear on the seventh chapter.

The female students are cute and dinky, with their bright-coloured, tasteless food and clothes. Smiricky likes them very much, in a rather perverse, Lolita-ish way: but his mind is more engaged by the male students, enlivening him with their wrong-headed opinions. He is provoked by young Higgins arguing that Stephen Crane is not writing about war but about ‘the emotional and intellectual maturing of a young man’. Smiricky reads out a military passage from Crane’s book, The Red Badge of Courage (mentally comparing the fiction with a real-life experience in the 1940s), but then he is distracted by a cute girl who has decided to class the book as an ‘anti-war novel’. Smiricky recognises that his own point of view is ‘formed by direct experience of war’ and that he is now confronted with Canadian ideas ‘shaped by the atmosphere and fashions of an age and its television’. He quotes Stalin: ‘There are wars that are just and wars that are unjust ... ’ But another girl interrupts: ‘Sir, name me a single just war!’ He thinks about World War Two. He thinks about the sufferings of Rebecca and other Jewish girls under the Nazis. Then a third girl tells him that Crane’s book is ‘trash’ because it shows no interest in the sufferings of the black slaves – and this banality makes Smiricky think of half-witted censorship under the Czech Communists.

The next section is a flashback to life with Prema during World War Two. There are more than twenty sections to each chapter, a quarter of them being flashbacks to Czechoslovakia, all out of temporal order: the reader has to work out the date (and the government regime) for himself, from internal evidence. The whole novel demands the sort of mental energy one brings to bear on an intelligence test or general knowledge quiz. The only sections which are precisely dated are the forty-odd letters from Smiricky’s correspondents, carefully sprinkled throughout the book, more or less in temporal order, from 1942 in the first chapter, ‘Poe’, to 1975 in the last, ‘Lovecraft’. As if to confuse the reader, interpreting this collage, there are six other letters from a Canadian called Booker, written (in 1976) to a woman in Czechoslovakia: these are very silly love-letters, spiced with insincere expressions of admiration for the Communist regime. The comic explanation for Booker’s weird letters appears only in the final chapter.

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