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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

Josef Skvorecky

Have you heard of this writer?

He’s Czech, an exile who skipped to Canada in the early ’70s, after the Czechoslovak government finally failed its people in ’68 by letting the Russians plow through the country, tanks lobbing 88mm shelves around. Skvorecky is one of those rare writers who uses humor to describe all the horrors of war, communism, love, death, friendship, and pains of life with equal hilarity as the joys that living fully give us. How else does he invent scenes in his novel “The Engineer of Human Souls”, about Czech conscripted workers under Nazi occupation, forced to make parts for fighter planes, where the men duck into the latrine to waste time and talk about all those major philosophical questions of life, where living is loving and loving the only way to get through life. And then there is the character of the 50-year-old exiled Czech writer teaching college literature to 19-year-old girls who are hot for teacher and expert (almost) in the art of seduction:

Irene flings aside the curtains and I sit down. Literally. She has a red strip left by an elastic waistband around her white stomach. Otherwise she seems made of alabaster. She glows like the white goddess in ‘Trader Horn’, and around her head a golden halo of blonde hair and in the female centre of her body a magnificent golden thicket, almost – my breath catches in my throat – like her hair, covering the sweet fissure with golden down –

“You’ll catch a cold,” I say.

“No I won’t,” she replies, and doesn’t know what to do next. She has not reckoned with my immobility. I ought to stand up and commence the work. But it’s much more pleasant to sit and look at this stunning alabaster girl.

For an absurd recollection has taken my breath away.

“Well,” she says, evidently embarrassed. “Aren’t you going to do something.”

“So you’re still a virgin?” I ask.

A dermatological phenomenon envelops that white body. It flushes red from the face right down to the toes, to the toenails which are painted a ridiculous emerald green. The arms, which until this moment have been hanging relaxed beside her body, execute an involuntary motion and she adopts the classic Venus pose. Then she regains her composure. “Yes!” she declares defiantly.

“Well,” I say, “put your clothes on.”

“You–don’t you like me?” her voice trembles.

“Of course I like you.”

“Then – why don’t you” – the small voice, trembling terribly, drops until it is almost inaudible– “take your clothes off too?”

“Because I want you to like me.”

Lifted by an errant wave, the cabin rocks slightly and a golden beam of light from an illuminated skyscraper sweeps through the porthole. Irene’s breasts tremble slightly as she asks, “Are you ashamed?”

“Aren’t you?”

She nods and the dermatological phenomenon reoccurs. “If you’d take your clothes off too, I wouldn’t be.”

“That’s precisely why I don’t.”

“But why?”

“Because I’m not nineteen anymore like you.”

BTW… the novel title, the engineer of human souls, “is held, by many political indoctrinators, to be Stalin’s definition of the writer: as an engineer constructs a machine, so must a writer construct the mind of the New Man.”  — Josef Skvorecky

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