Josef Škvorecký is perhaps not a famous author (or perhaps he is and I've just missed it). In any case, he died in 2012 and his works are not now easy to find in English in Europe. He was a Czech dissident who went into exile in 1968, after the Prague Spring, and got a job teaching American Literature at the University of Toronto. Alongside his day job, he was a comic novelist in Czech, many of whose works were readily available in English translation in the 1990s, when I carelessly assumed they always would be. Twenty years on, they seem (with one exception) to have passed out of print. Had I anticipated this, I would not so lightly have lent out or given away the paperbacks I had bought.
Those of his works I have read fall into three categories: historical novels, detective fiction, and semi-autobiographical novels.
In the last category, the author's alter ego is jazz-loving Danny Smiricky, but the stories also incorporate lightly fictionalised events from Czech history, which the author did not himself witness. The first of them is The Cowards (which does appear to be in print, in a 2010 Penguin edition), set at the end of the Second World War, with Danny a schoolboy in a jazz band (officially a folk band, jazz being musica non grata); it was banned on publication in Czech in the 1950s, and translated into English in 1970. This is followed by the more straight-forwardly autobiographical The Engineer of Human Souls, set in the aftermath of the Prague Spring; and by The Miracle Game, which centres on a fictionalised version of the 1949 Cihost Miracle, and the reopening of the investigation into it in 1968.
The historical novels are The Bride of Texas, based on accounts of Bohemians who served in the American Civil War (a dense work that I tried to read but found surprisingly tedious), and Dvorak in Love, about musical culture in New York during the years when Dvorak was working there and wrote his New World Symphony (which is very funny).
The works that I go back to again and again, though, are the detective stories. These are written more in the Agatha Christie than the Dashiell Hammett tradition, but under the shadow of a darker historical setting. The first Škvorecký I read was his collection Sins for Father Knox, in which the author invites the reader not only to solve the mystery, but to spot which prohibition from Ronald Knox's Decalogue of Detective Fiction has been contravened in the telling. The first to read though is The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, written in the years before the Prague Spring (and translated into English in 1973). This is a small taste:
The man took off his hat and an unruly tuft of hair stood up on his round head. He was Lieutenant Josef Boruvka and with him was his 17-year-old daughter Zuzana. His present plight was due to Zuzana's lust for foreign fields. In order to turn this desire to educational advantage, he had promised that if her school report turned out well they would spend a holiday together in Italy. He had however committed a fateful error, for he had neglected to define the term "turn out well". Consequently, after a hard struggle with his wife and daughter, he had been compelled to keep his promise although the report had comprised an abundance of Cs. ... Lieutenant Boruvka took himself off gloomily to the Cedok travel agency. There had been a time when he too longed — in vain, such was the nature of the time — for foreign lands. Now, however, he had reached the age when a comfortable armchair in front of the goggle box was more attractive. Visualising lumpy beds in cheap hotels, and other hardships of foreign travel, he strode through the Prague streets in summer bloom, mentally calculating the amount that would be left in the family savings book after he had paid the cost of Zuzana's academic success. At the bottom of his heart he hoped that the foreign currency quota for the year would already have been exhausted. But the highest hopes are wont to be dashed.
The holiday in Italy, like so many in detective fiction, turns out to be a busman's holiday for the Czech homicide detective.
Post-1968, the stories take a darker turn, in the collection The End of Lieutenant Boruvka. Here's a passage of dialogue from the last story in the collection, "Pirates", between the detective and a friend's uncle, a dissident writer, who lives next door to a house where an old man has been murdered:
With great effort the old detective turned his attention from his private thoughts back to objective reality and said, "It's your neighbour. He's been murdered. And...," he lowered his whisper until it was scarcely audible, "I have reason to suspect — in fact I'm practically certain — that he worked for ... for the organisation that I don't belong to. There was a bugging device in his flat. He was probably listening to what you were saying here when ..."
"No matter," said the writer calmly. "There's already a microphone over there in the radiator and another one in the telephone."
The lieutenant was visibly shaken and the writer slapped himself on the forehead. "Oh Christ!" He lowered his voice to a whisper even less audible than the lieutenant's. "A thousand pardons. I guess they haven't got you on tape yet have they? The last thing I want to do is get you in trouble...."
He got up, took the phone off the hook, and tossed a thick blanket over the radiator. The lieutenant's knees began to tremble.
And here a passage of description from the same story:
They drove past wheat fields golden in the daytime, the colour of old gold now, at night, waving in the night breeze beneath the cherry trees that lined the road. They drove through woods where the black shadows of magnificent owls flitted among the trees. A moth landed on the lieutenant's nose, then flew away; the sergeant, hunched over the wheel of the Volga, pushed the motor to the limit and the lieutenant's loaded pistol dug into his hip. The countryside sped by the open windows, redolent of barns and manure piles, villages submerged in darkness and silence, a landscape of clover and lucerne, the lieutenant's landscape, with ponds reflecting a twisted moon, like the crumpled collages of one of those artists from the Dubcek era who later committed suicide — an ordinary suicide from an era of normalization. A landscape of fireflies and old, ancient history, a countryside where criminals were drawn and quartered at a time when the city of Memphis no longer existed and did not yet exist.
The afternoon before writing this I spent quizzing my oldest son in preparation for his school-leaving History exam, which covers the world since 1945. He didn't know the difference between the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution, and I felt very sad. As a historian I am wary of fiction as a gateway to historical understanding (I grit my teeth when I see novels recommended to homeschoolers as part of their History curriculum), but Škvorecký's writing certainly gave me a more sympathetic understanding of what it was like to live in the Eastern Bloc, and my first, hopeless, wish this afternoon was that I had encouraged my son to read Škvorecký months ago, so that he would have some imaginative and emotional hook for knowledge that to me seems so important.
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.