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The Engineer of Human Souls (1977)

by Josef Škvorecký

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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600731,811 (3.91)55
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

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» See also 55 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
If Iain Sinclair wants to know how to eradicate plot but nevertheless write a novel that is at once funny, poignant, moving, funny, sad and tragic, he should put down his pen and pick up a copy of this.

The tragedy that was Czechoslovakia is portrayed intimately through a series of vignettes that covers the 20th century history of the nation and its scattered citizens around the world.

Much of the history is told through letters and memoirs, in particular the memoir of a professor of literature at a Candian university. Here we see the influence of autobiography (take note Sinclair) as Skvorecky’s own life permeates the pages.

These sections include his childhood growing up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, village life, working in a munitions factory and his relationships with various women.

In between, we have historical sections that provide the contextual background such as the incomprehensibly awful story of the Lidice massacre.

Skvorecky tells it all with wry humour throughout. He’s an excellent story-teller, creates great characters and keeps you immersed for over 600 pages. It’s definitely one that should be more widely read.

The book is intensely political. The title refers to the the business of writers (as the phrase was first used) but also alludes of course to the way political ideologies shape lives.

Sadly however, the book doesn’t explore the influence of capitalism on people’s lives. It would have been good to have heard this alongside the impact of socialism and fascism. Nevertheless, this is an important book and one that you should seek out and read whenever you can. ( )
  arukiyomi | Oct 11, 2020 |
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. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
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
2 vote | jasbro | Jul 19, 2012 |
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. ( )
  almigwin | Apr 11, 2012 |
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. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Dec 31, 2011 |
Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (12 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Škvorecký, JosefAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Krastiņš, JānisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lehto, LeeviTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marcellino, FredCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Truth lies in the nuances

Anatole France
What thou lovest well remains, the rest is dross
the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is true heritage

Ezra Pound
Listen Tor, here's the real problem: whatever happens, I shall always defend you against the guns of the firing squad. You, on the other hand, must consent in my execution

Albert Camus
On days when sadness came, I surrendered to laughter; Having surrendered, I became gloomy.

Viktor Dyk
To Generalize is to be an idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.

William Blake
To Santnerova
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Outside the window, which is high, narrow and gothic, the cold Canadian wind blends two whitenesses: snowflakes sifting down from lowering clouds and snowdust lifted and whirled by the wind from the land stretching southwards to Lake Ontario.
– I liked it a lot. All art that makes us think is valuable.
– Think? What about?
– About everything. What else is there to think about?
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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

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