0669 | The Engineer of Human Souls | Josef Skvorecky


If Iain Sinclair wants to know how to eradicate plot but nevertheless write a novel that is at once funny, poignant, moving, funny, sad and tragic, he should put down his pen and pick up a copy of this.

The tragedy that was Czechoslovakia is portrayed intimately through a series of vignettes that covers the 20th century history of the nation and its scattered citizens around the world.

Much of the history is told through letters and memoirs, in particular the memoir of a professor of literature at a Candian university. Here we see the influence of autobiography (take note Sinclair) as Skvorecky’s own life permeates the pages.

These sections include his childhood growing up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, village life, working in a munitions factory and his relationships with various women.

In between, we have historical sections that provide the contextual background such as the incomprehensibly awful story of the Lidice massacre.

Skvorecky tells it all with wry humour throughout. He’s an excellent story-teller, creates great characters and keeps you immersed for over 600 pages. It’s definitely one that should be more widely read.

The book is intensely political. The title refers to the the business of writers (as the phrase was first used) but also alludes of course to the way political ideologies shape lives.

Sadly however, the book doesn’t explore the influence of capitalism on people’s lives. It would have been good to have heard this alongside the impact of socialism and fascism. Nevertheless, this is an important book and one that you should seek out and read whenever you can.

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