BOOKS

Prague memories

A Czech novel recalls freedom’s first taste

John Bemrose December 31 1990
BOOKS

Prague memories

A Czech novel recalls freedom’s first taste

John Bemrose December 31 1990

Prague memories

A Czech novel recalls freedom’s first taste

BOOKS

THE MIRACLE GAME By Josef Skvoreckÿ (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 436 pages, $24.95)

In Canada, Josef Skvorecký is best known as the author of The Engineer of Human Souls, his masterful novel dealing with the aftermath of the 1968 Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia. Translated into English, the book won the 1984 Governor General’s Literary Prize and revealed Skvoreckÿ—who immigrated to Canada after the invasion—as one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of life in the shadow of totalitarianism. Before Engineer, Skvoreckÿ wrote The Miracle Game. Eighteen years after its first publication in the Czech language, it has finally appeared in English, in a seamless new translation by Paul Wilson.

Like Engineer, The Miracle Garne ts narrated by the irrepressible Danny Smiricky. A selfstyled loner, the cynical, woman-chasing Danny has raised survival to a fine art. Although he cares little for communism, he knows how to maintain an apparent neutrality that not only saves his life but also attracts the confessions of Czechoslovaks from almost every occupation. Communist bureaucrats and criminals, writers and schoolteachers, soldiers and priests, all spill their secrets to Danny. And in the process, they create a complex, tragicomic panorama of Czechoslovakian society in the 20 years after its takeover by Communists in 1948.

As The Miracle Game opens in 1949, Danny is working as a young teacher in a girl’s

vocational school in Hronov, a small town hours from Prague. True to form, he soon starts an affair with one of his students, a buxom senior called Vixi. At the same time, the little town becomes the scene of the unusual event evoked in the novel’s title. At a service in the local Roman Catholic chapel, a statue of St. Joseph seems to move by itself. Reports of the miracle begin to spread, stirring up the animosity of Czechoslovakian officials determined to defend the country’s official atheism. Later, the secret police release a film that purports to show that the miracle was a hoax. In the meantime, the priest accused of perpetrating the fraud dies in suspicious circumstances. Danny eventually discovers that he was murdered.

The mystery of whether a miracle occurred at Hronov haunts Danny for the rest of the novel. Twenty years later, when he is a successful writer of operettas, he is still finding pieces of the puzzle. Although a skeptic himself, the miracle fascinates him because it stands in such flagrant opposition to the professed rationalism of Marxism. Discovering what really happened at Hronov becomes his own, private act of hope and defiance.

Like all large objects, the 436-page novel takes some time to overcome its own inertia. Danny’s tryst with Vixi seems puerile and dull, a result of his sexist nudge-and-wink attitude towards women. But after the story moves on to the 1968 Prague Spring—when Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek initiated a brief spell of liberalization—Skvoreckÿ bears memorable witness to the convulsions of Czechoslo-

vakian politics. In one scene, he describes a harrowing meeting in which writers confess to their former collaboration with hard-line Communists. Danny observes such events with nervous skepticism, because he does not believe that the freedom will last. And he is right. By August, Russian tanks are chewing up the Prague pavement.

Danny is critical of those who call for open defiance of the Russians: he thinks they are simply digging their own graves. One leader of the rebellious faction is a playwright called Hejl, who is clearly modelled on Václav Havel, the dissident writer who is now president of the new, non-Communist Czechoslovakia. Danny sarcastically refers to him as the “world-famous playwright” and suggests he is a naïve idealist who believes that the majority of Czechoslovaks support socialism.

The great strength of The Miracle Game— Danny’s cool-headed account of the follies and evils of his time—is also its main weakness. Because he is a floater who never gets emotionally involved with anyone, The Miracle Game is a bit too cool to be completely involving. But as a novel of record, it is often unforgettable. When one of Danny’s friends tours a Czechoslovakian prison, he wonders about a long series of identical bathrooms. They are, he is told, torture chambers. The image of torture as a form of mass production is utterly chilling. The great gift of The Miracle Game is its reminder that such evil lies latent in humans—and that, once it takes hold, only a miracle can shake its deathly grip.

JOHN BEMROSE