Friday, January 06, 2012

Josef Skvorecky

It is with a heavy heart that for the second time in three weeks I have to report the death of a giant of Czech literature. Although less well known than his contemporaries, Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, Josef Skvorecky was as good a writer as Kundera- and in a broader idiom- and as humane a political figure as Havel.

Forced to defect to Canada after the Soviet invasion to crush the Prague Spring, Skvorecky became a publisher who popularized his fellow Czechs in the West, while still writing warm and wise novels of his own.

His semi-autobiographical novels, the Cowards, the Tank Batallion and the Engineer of Human Souls are often laugh out loud funny, in the tradition of Jaroslav Hasek's Good Solider Svejk, while at the same time carrying serious and wise points. The last is certainly the equal of Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  

It is hard to select a favourite, but for me, Skvorecky's obsessive interest in the genre of detective stories created a subversive version of Chandler, where his hero, Lt Boruvka, gradually gets more depressed as the solution to the crime hoves into view. He systematically tries to break the rules of the detective story- and the result is extremely readable.

Skvorecky was a humorous and warm writer- and his death, coming after the recent passing of Vaclav Havel should remind us of what heights Czech literature was hitting in the last decades of the twentieth century.

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