While there was quite a gap there, it is perhaps appropriate that this review of another massive, ambitious novel follows right on the heels of my review of Headhunter. The Engineer of Human Souls is generally considered Josef Skvorecky's magnum opus. I don't think there is any hard and fast rule about reading books in translation (for the challenge), at least I hope not. Despite living in Toronto for decades and eventually teaching (English and comparative literature) at the University of Toronto, essentially all of his novels were written in Czech and then translated (perhaps not the very last few). It is also possible that some of his later essays were written directly in English. Skvorecky died fairly recently (Jan 3, 2012), which inspired me to actually tackle the book, moving it up from a lower priority stack. Curiously, he died within a month of Vaclav Havel. Their lives are somewhat curiously intertwined, and they both knew each other and were generally supporters of each other, but Havel of course remained in Czechoslovakia and was imprisoned (and was vastly more famous), and Skvorecky escaped to Canada in 1968.
The Engineer of Human Souls is probably not the best place to start with Skvorecky. It might be better to ease oneself in with The Bass Saxophone or possibly the short story collection When Eve Was Naked. It probably wouldn't hurt to know a bit about Skvorecky's political writings in Talkin' Moscow Blues before tackling The Engineer of Human Souls. For the most part, Skvorecky thought Canadians were very polite and a decent bunch, but very politically naive, and they had little sense of what one would do to survive under extreme conditions, i.e. turn traitor and/or be swayed by extremist political movements. This novel works out a lot of these issues, though in a somewhat exhausting way. Similar to Headhunter, cropping 100 or even 200 pages would probably have made The Engineer of Human Souls a truly excellent novel. I did feel the novel suffered from diminishing returns, which is a shame, since the first 100 or even 200 pages were really great.
It's a little hard to spoil the plot, in part because there is not that much of a true through-line and second, because we see the narrator, Danny Smiricky (a stand-in for Skvorecky) in his new life in Canada, so we know he doesn't die as part of the resistance to the Nazi occupation or in the Soviet invasion of 1968.
The book is broken into seven chapters, each (except the last) an author that Danny is covering in his literature class. Curiously, except for Joseph Conrad, they are all U.S. authors (Hawthorne, Poe, Twane, Fitzgerald). The basic conceit is that Danny is struggling to reconcile his easy life in Toronto (teaching these naive Canadians how to read literature) with his memories of a much harder life in Czechoslovakia. Indeed, Danny occasionally receives letters from friends that have either escaped to places such as Australia or Israel, or who have remained in Czechoslovakia. One of the latter (Jan) is also a bit of a writer, and may be a partial portrait/homage to Havel. My feeling about the letters is that while they were useful at first, it is too hard to reconcile them with the rest of the novel. Sometimes they seem to be used to break from the present to the past, but this isn't always consistent. Sometimes the date on the letter doesn't correspond with the time that Danny is reverting to (at least I believe this is the case). Certainly the chronological sequencing of the book is very complex, and I'm not sure there is a true pattern, other than alternating between the present (mid 1970s -- which should be kept in mind) and the past. I was fairly convinced that the "past" sections were heading to 1968, when Danny presumably defected, and I was frankly expecting to see that scene written out. I was quite disappointed in what we have in its place. I got sick of reading the letters at about the 3/4 mark of the book -- some of them went on for 3 or so pages. There was another scene of Danny trying to get a forbidden manuscript from a visiting Czech that went on and on and on. Honestly, Skvorecky could have used a more rigorous editor.
It's hard to say what I think about the novel. I think the sections with Danny teaching his students are well written, though certainly the stakes are low. I think the dangerous scrapes Danny gets into in occupied and post-War Czechoslovakia are generally of interest. He never really knows who to trust, but still has a dangerous tendency to shoot off his mouth. I could see that the present sections also had some interesting observations on the state of the Czech exile community in Toronto (some coping quite well with the new freedoms of the West while others longed for home). But it still didn't cohere, and it really didn't help that the ending was so weak. I guess in general it is the kind of novel that is worth working one's way through, but it isn't a master work that I plan on ever returning to.