The Engineer of Human Souls

by Josef Škvorecký

Other authorsPaul Wilson (Translator)
Paperback, 1984




New York : Washington Square Press, c1984


THE ENGINEER OF HUMAN SOULS spins its own story from the torn entrails of Central Europe. yet what emerges is comedy - clack, grimacing and explosively funny, as peculiarly middle European as the despairing wit of prague's own Franz Kafka' Time

User reviews

LibraryThing member DieFledermaus
This is a sprawling, non-linear novel with a large cast of characters, occasionally written in stream-of-consciousness mode - not for everyone. The novel provides a good look at the confusing, dangerous times under German occupation during WWII and the transition to Communist rule after as well as the expatriate Czech community in Canada. Skvorecky’s stand-in is Danny Smiricky, a writer and jazz musician who in the present teaches at the Canadian Edenvale College. Though there is a lot of narrative fragmentation, the story generally follows Danny’s adventures in the past, in his hometown of Kostelec and after in Prague, and in the present in Toronto after emigrating. Numerous letters are interspersed between the stories, describing the lives of Danny’s acquaintances during the war, after in Czechoslovakia, and in various other countries after emigration. The first person narrator has a very engaging voice so I enjoyed reading despite the fact that Danny is a somewhat cowardly womanizer in the past and still one in the present but one with much more detachment.

In the past, Danny has been pressed into working in a factory making planes for the Germans. He flirts with his pretty coworker, the engaged village girl Nadia, and also recollects his loves for other women. Some of his friends are involved in an effort to sabotage the Germans. Danny also makes an attempt at his factory job – mostly to impress Nadia. After the war, everyone scrambles to revise their ‘story’ but Danny is deaf to the change in the winds at first. Later he learns to play the game. In Toronto, Danny describes the Czech emigrant community, his class on American literature, his relationships with women and the occasional intrusion of a stray Communist spy.

Many novels switch between the past and present lives of the main characters. Often, the present section is vastly inferior and less well-developed. Here, though, both sections are engaging and funny. Both had some narrative arcs (though in both plotlines can be loose and random as well) – the strongest in the past were Danny’s relationship with Nadia and his ineffectual attempts at sabotage. In the present, the relationship of Danny’s friend and fellow ex-Czech, Veronika, as well as her general unhappiness, had the most narrative thrust.

Whenever I read the book, I would read large chunks at one time, but there was never a strong rush to finish. This was partly due to the structure of the novel – individual sections were very interesting, but sometimes the whole plot didn’t have much momentum. There are a number of digressions from characters who are peripheral, but they added to the whole picture. The large cast of characters made it hard to keep everyone straight, especially with all the jumping around. Sometimes there are whole groups of people that can be hard to distinguish – Danny’s friends at Kostelec and members of the Czech community in Toronto. The most memorable stories often come from side characters as they describe life under two repressive regimes, crazy escapes from Communism or humorous returns home. I think the best way to take on this book is to just go with the flow of switching narrative, occasional character confusion, interpolated letters and humor from odd places.
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LibraryThing member jasbro
How can one resist a book, the Contents for which read:

Chapter One: Poe
Chapter Two: Hawthorne
Chapter Three: Twain
Chapter Four: Crane
Chapter Five: Fitzgerald
Chapter Six: Conrad
Chapter Seven: Lovecraft
LibraryThing member J.v.d.A.
This was the first book of Skvorecky's I ever read & I was prompted to do so after watching some footage of the author reading from the book. It's been over fifteen years since I've read it and I only read it the once. Great book full of beautiful writing - Skvorecky's masterpiece.
LibraryThing member jonfaith
A swelerting summer delivered me into contact with this tome, in fact I bought it in Bloomington and then collpased into it, the parallel gravity of its temportal tracks swept me along. Sadly, I haven't been able to replicate the effect with other works by Skvorecky.
LibraryThing member almigwin
Wonderful irony and wit from the writer and publlisher of czech material in canada. I like all of his books, but this one is, I think, his best.


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