Archive for the ‘Czech’ Category

Cover of 'The Miracle Game'Sitting down to respond to Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game, less than twenty-four hours after I finished reading it, I already feel that I have to refer to notes. And I know even notes won’t help me to explain that elusive point, exactly what this book is about, because it’s a behemoth of a comic opera; any plot summary seems to leave out as much as it puts in.

The fact is, this isn’t precisely a book constructed around a severely methodical plot. It’s a tough read–and a completely engrossing one–because it takes as its fulcrum one person’s experience and memory, and then pivots and pirouettes around that with one scene and event after another, leaping backwards and forwards in time, changing circumstances every few pages, and encompassing a vast selection of characters. It is readable in the sense that, even though it’s a first-person narration, it’s in clear, crisp, grammatical prose and upholds basic principles of narration. But the ordering of events is, in fact, quite near to chaos, and all the better for that.

There is a point to this narrative chaos–it reflects and evokes quite effortlessly a feeling of being completely unable to ever come entirely to grips with reality and circumstances. Just when you think you’ve got it, it twists around on itself and sends you in another direction. Whether this actually works in the author’s favor is debatable, but it did, in my opinion, for the greater part. There were bits of the book we could have done quite well without, making it a rather more manageable read, but they’re there and not about to be removed.

Which is why, I find, no plot summary I’ve read, whether the synopsis on the book cover or the publisher’s blurbs on Amazon.com, can quite do justice to this labyrinth of a story. Still, one can try. The fulcrum of the book is Danny Smiricky, a first-person narrator who is a thinly disguised version of the author Skvorecky himself. In the late 1940s, in Bohemia, Danny wakes up with a start during a service in a tiny chapel to find that he, along with Vixi, his student and lover, and a congregation that has gone into hysterics, has just witnessed a strange event–the statue of St. Joseph has moved, either by some divine power, as the villagers and their priest believe, or by the power of some human contrivance, as the Secret Police judges. For this is Communist Czechoslovakia, and Catholicism isn’t looked upon kindly, leave alone miracles apparently engineered by Catholic saints. The priest is arrested and dies while being interrogated, and this is all kept silent as far as possible. But it doesn’t get completely covered up–some twenty years later, during the Prague Spring, a journalist tries to reopen investigation into exactly what happened there, and Danny discusses the miracle with him, until they finally get to the bottom of it.

That is, ostensibly, the plot. It would be more accurate to say that this book traces the events that led to Danny being in the chapel with Vixi when the miracle takes place; and further, that another thread can be drawn through the scenes of the Prague Spring and its end, when Danny observes the counter-revolutionary zeal and reactions to events in Czechoslovakia in various settings in Europe and parts of the U.S.A., which he is visiting on a Ford Foundation grant.

Yet none of this captures what the book is about. What it is about is different people living in a Communist state, some simply going from day to day and either actiuvely trying or spectacularly failing to stay out of the headlights of the Secret Police and those in power, while others, driven by ideology, use any means to justify its ends. But Skvorecky, whose first book this was after emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s, makes a chaos of it precisely because there is no other way for people in a police state to understand the world around them and how it can suddenly crack because the ideology from which power stems is suddenly redefined or reunderstood or seems to be disrupted by somebody’s actions or words.

So this is a book about something so very serious and grave–but it is also probably one of the funniest books I’ve read recently. To the point that I laughed aloud every few pages. Skvorecky’s narration drips generous quantities of irony, is cheerfully bawdy, and even throws in some slapstick for our entertainment–and satirizes the Party and its machinations even as it warily describes them.

It’s an uncompromising narrative eye that skewers everybody and leaves them wriggling as we observe them, though it is kinder to some than to others. With the Party, it is savage, angry, but with the anger of a surgeon who knows how to wield a scalpel without too much mess; with most other characters, teachers, students, writers, most often women, it mocks, but more gently. It achieves all this mostly through fast-moving conversation and debate, sometimes reported, sometimes direct speech–Skvorecky certainly has a ear for dialogue (though I was uncomfortable with the translator’s decision to render the dialect of the Czech peasant in pure American hillbilly) and knows just how to time his characters’ speech.

Skvorecky and his wife, early in their marriage
Skvorecky and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarov√°, in the early years of their marriage

Skvorecky’s writing of a Soviet novelist, Arashidov, drunkenly telling Morris, a British author, the long and complicated way by which his translation of the latter’s book passed beyond all Party authorization and was made available to the public; a meeting of Maoists in California, horrifyingly blind to anything beyond the framework of the ideology they espouse; schoolgirls learning by rote a description of a subject for which the government has never provided textbooks, dragging that description out time after time during an oral exam, and then trying to first feed and then drug the examiner into submission; Danny attempting to flee Soviet tanks and ferry Sylva, his friend’s wife, two children, and a suitcase full of very sexy lingerie and birth control pills to safety in Paris; a small-town girl, dazzled by the glory of a city girl’s wardrobe, trying on one outfit after another in the steamy haze of a kitchen dotted with benevolently lecherous men… the memorable scenes in this book come in plenty, as do the brief anecdotes, little one-paragraph capsules of story that could be novels in themselves, strewn carelessly on the pages.

The prose turns lyrical and yearning at times, for instance, when Danny thinks about the cult of the Virgin Mary, when he traces his route through the U.S.A., and certainly, but certainly, when he expresses his desire for a woman. It did feel sometimes that Skvorecky had too many women in this book for Danny to lust after, but then again, the narrative does cover more than twenty years, which would equate to a lot of women for a single man. Yet he undercuts this lyricism sometimes, with the acknowledgment of how the passing of a moment is final, and a memory can sometimes reveal how simply ridiculous past earnestness was. Cynical, sometimes too clever by half, yet heartfelt, with a cynicism born of genuine disappointment and disillusionment–that’s The Miracle Game. And perhaps the only end to this story is that eventually, everything, absolutely everything, can be found to be at least, as Skvorecky and Danny see it,¬† not uplifting, but certainly comic.


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