Josef Skvorecky

5 Jan

The only reason I’m writing this is because I learned that Josef Skvorecky died yesterday and his death seemed to be completely overshadowed by other events.

That’s understandable, I suppose. He never was that well-known in comparison to J K Rowling or Stephen King, but if I could persuade someone to pick up one of his books and have a look at it, I’d consider my time well spent. (For a change).

While living as an exile in Canada following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Joseph Skvorecky was active in publishing the works of  ‘forbidden’ authors, including Vaclav Havel the future first President of a free Czechoslovakia.

So he might be remembered by future generations for being instrumental in letting the world know about Vaclav Havel. (Not a bad claim to fame, it’s better than I’ve ever managed to do).

That would be a bit of a shame, however, because Skvorecky was also an author in his own right.

I suppose his magnum opus would be The Engineer of Human Souls (Josef Stalin’s description of a novelist), an autobiographical work based on Skvorecky’s life under Nazi occupation and his comical, and potentially disastrous, attempts at sabotage, and his later life as an academic in Canada.

Skvorecky also wrote a series of gentle and rather wistful detective stories featuring Lieutenant Boruvka. (A decent and competent, rather than brilliant detective who is good at solving his cases, but is saddened rather than triumphant at his success). Lieutenant Boruvka sometimes has a tendency to miss the important wider points in his life, but in the anthology called The End of Lieutenant Boruvka there is a theme linking the various crimes that the Lieutenant investigates and that theme is the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the pervasive corruption and brutality that comes with it. In the end Boruvka gets the point. He tried to act and Skvorecky, not being an ideologue leaves the reader to decide whether or not his attempt at decency really works out.

Miss Silver’s Past could best be described, I think, as a sort of  dark love story (in that it features a ‘sort of’ love and some very dark themes).

Josef Skvorecky didn’t really do magic realism, but he came close in The Base Saxophone, which should probably have been filmed by Fellini, or someone with a similar flair for the surreal.

I suppose you might think that Skvorecky’s work has less relevance now that the Cold War is over, the Czech republic is free and democratic and the Nazi occupation of Europe is fading into the background of history.

I think that would be a mistake. Essentially what Skvorecky was writing about was the struggle of a decent human being to stay decent while living within an inhuman system. He also wrote about the pain of exile and the tendency of corrupt political institutions to distort every aspect of life. (And we’re still not running short of either exiles or corrupt political institutions).

I wouldn’t have said he was an overtly political writer, he doesn’t have an ideology to shove down your throat, he seems much more interested in giving you something to smile about and maybe think about as well.

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3 Responses to “Josef Skvorecky”

  1. Lucille Hunter 09/01/2012 at 4:27 am #

    I had never heard of him before so I went on Amazon and…well, I couldn’t buy any of his work because Christmas has left me so poor (the kind of poor that just gets worse thanks to bank charges) but I added the ones you mentioned to my wishlist. My wishlist isn’t actually all that long, so I’ll hopefully get round to buying them (or having them bought for me :D) before long.

    • fekesh 09/01/2012 at 3:17 pm #

      I hope you enjoy his work when you get the chance to read it. I also hope you have generous friends.
      As for the poverty thing, I can sympathise. I didn’t write a post on destitution cooking just by accident. I’m also a fan of lending libraries and second hand bookshops, you can’t always find what you want, but serendipity can be a wonderful thing and there’s nothing quite like the sweet and spicy scent of an old book. (My sister in law doesn’t agree, she likes reading but she sees a stack of old books as an infallible dust magnet and hence her mortal enemy).

  2. Lucille Hunter 10/01/2012 at 1:38 am #

    Amazon wishlists make everything so much easier for birthdays and Christmas etc, which is why I’ve forced all my friends to make one and link me it.
    I do love old books. I also love new books though, with shiny crease-less covers and spotless pages and that fresh-book smell…Kindles ain’t got nothing on that.

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