CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

Skvorecky, Joseph.

Toronto, Lester & Orpen Dennys, c1977, 1984. 571pp, cloth, $19.95", ISBN 0-919630-17-0. CIP

Reviewed by Boh Kinczyk

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

In The Swell Season,* bright young jazz musician Danny Smiricky roams the streets of Nazi-occupied Kostelec searching for love. Danny is romantic, earnest, persistent—and ultimately unsuccessful. The Engineer of Human Souls opens with Danny, now Professor Smiricky, gazing out at the swirling snow that threatens to envelop the campus of Toronto's Edenvale College. He has found a new country and a new career, but he has lost his youthful vigour. Danny has become a stodgy middle-aged professor teaching English to uncomprehending undergraduates. He struggles pathetically with their ignorance, their prejudices, their plagiarism. Canada has no past, and Professor Smiricky has no future. Understandably, he fills the emptiness with memories of Kostelec.

Engineer tells both stories: the story of young Danny the skirt-chaser, the saboteur, the scared Czech nationalist, and the story of Professor Smiricky who drifts through Canadian life at Edenvale, listening to the crazy counter-revolutionary schemes of his fellow emigrés and wondering whether he should start something up with a pretty student, Irene Svensson.

Engineer is a far more ambitious work than Swell Season. Subtitled "an entertainment on the old themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death," it is a sprawling montage. It juxtaposes the Old World and the new, the Old World torn with war, held together by hope, and the new world wild, young and irresponsible. Balancing Danny's energetic idealism and Professor Smiricky's wry, cynical humour, the novel is structured around the professor's informal lectures on seven writers ranging from Poe to Lovecraft. The literature Smiricky teaches resonates beautifully. It means one thing to the middle-aged Old World professor, and something quite different to the naive undergraduates. Smiricky cannot keep his voice from breaking when he reads "The Raven," while Irene cannot suppress her giggles. Poe fascinates the professor and bores the students. The literary scaffolding Skvorecky erects is undoubtedly a clever way to bridge past and present, idealism and cynicism, but when Smiricky (or is it Skvorecky?) reveals his own literary prejudices I am horrified. Shakespeare, in Smiricky's view, is a "court lickspittle." And Conrad, according to the professor, wrote Heart of Darkness as a prophecy about the Soviet Union. Is the professor simply indulging in light-hearted literary charlatanism? Can I take a joke? No. Yes. Smiricky's gullible students accept his views as gospel-Irene, after all, thinks Lovecraft is a store where one can buy naughty sexual toys-whereas Smiricky's literary opinions are often silly and sometimes dangerous.

Engineer is funny and sad, witty and cynical, full of delightful and memorable characters. Smiricky himself, though, is not always a sympathetic or believable character. At one point his desire for Irene overwhelms him, but the professor is too stodgy and condescending and straight to be of much interest to a very pretty, very wealthy nineteen-year-old. I did not believe it for a minute.

This is an important novel that deserves to be read. It has much much more to say than Swell Season, but does not say it nearly as well.

Boh Kinczyk, Central Elgin C.I., St. Thomas, Ont.

*Reviewed vol. Xl/2 March 1983 p.61.

line indexes


1971-1979 | 1980-1985 | 1986-1990 | 1991-1995


The materials in this archive are copyright © The Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission Copyright information for reviewers

Young Canada Works