Europe and Exile

Europe and Exile

By the time he was 45 years old, the Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky had survived a dizzying succession of political systems: Masaryk’s democratic republic, the Nazi protectorate, the postwar social democratic republic, Stalinist rule after the 1948 coup, the humanist socialism of Dubcek’s Spring, and finally, in the weeks before his exile in 1969, Soviet occupation. His most recent novel, The Engineer of Human Souls, is something of a guided tour through the chaos of 20th-century European political history. For that reason alone it’s a remarkable book. Skvorecky abandons chronological narrative for a crazy quilt of scenes and events from four decades and several continents tumbled upon each other. We begin at the University of Toronto in the early 1970s. Daniel Smiricky, a Czech writer in exile, is teaching English literature to a motley crew of ignorant undergraduates, including an American draft dodger and a 19-year-old Scandinavian goddess whom Smiricky contemplates seducing. Lecherous thoughts of his student Irene set the middle-aged Smiricky drifting back into the past, to Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and to Nadia, a poor village girl with whom he worked at forced labor in a Messerschmidt factory. He remembers now he once “burned with delight” for skinny Nadia whose black eyes glittered with tuberculosis, how he seduced her with the help of jam tarts, and how blithely he committed sabotage to impress her.

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Lima