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BOOK REVIEW : This Time, Panorama Is a Little Muddy

TIMES BOOK CRITIC

With “The Engineer of Human Souls,” Josef Skvorecky wrote a panoramic novel of Czechoslovakia from the Nazi occupation through the Stalinist repression, the burgeoning of freedom that culminated in the Prague Spring of 1968, and the subsequent new round of repression.

Told by Josef Smiricky, the author’s free-spirited witness and alter ego, it dealt less with the events themselves than with the national character as it coped, compromised, sabotaged, went under and resurfaced.

There were a few monsters and a few saints; mostly, there was the Czech spirit of humor, suppleness and the resilient insistence on being itself. Above all, there were paradoxes: the flash of courage and decency among the time-servers; the flash of pettiness and opportunism among the resisters.

“Engineer” was often hilarious and sometimes heavy; it was always discursive and sometimes sloppy. But its delight in its characters and its genial and sometimes tragic irony made it a winning portrait of a people groping through serial adversities with three sustaining qualities: recalcitrance, a sense of the absurd, and the readiness to blot out a dismal long prospect with a pleasurable short one.

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In “The Miracle Game,” Skvorecky makes a second panoramic sweep of the same period. Again, he uses Smiricky as guide, commentator and participant. There are some splendid things in it: a number of touching portraits, and here and there a chain of comic disaster.

It is far more disjointed than its predecessor, and its narrative is muddier and wordier. More seriously, much of it seems forced. The strain, perhaps, comes from the effort to hold together a collection of notes, anecdotes and observations that have lost the energy and urgency to cohere on their own.

The central story concerns Smiricky’s efforts to help a Catholic journalist, during the open freedoms and underlying threats of 1968, investigate an incident from the Stalinist days. Father Doufal, a village priest, had been saying Mass when the statue of St. Joseph bowed to him. It seemed to be a miracle; the authorities brutally stepped in.

A set of pulleys and wires was promptly and secretly installed, and Father Doufal was forced to operate it while being filmed. Unfortunately for the regime, when the priest pulled the St. Joseph lever, the statue of the Virgin Mary bowed from the other side of the altar.

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A second film was made to get things right, but the officiating figure, heavily disguised, was not Father Doufal. The priest had been taken to the hospital with fatal injuries attributed by the authorities to a car crash. But his fingernails had been ripped out, someone noticed.

A series of investigative articles by the journalist and a series of helpful or irate letters to the paper filled in pieces of the puzzle. But some of the pieces were disinformation, supplied by the security forces, whose rule was to resume in full strength after the Soviet tanks moved in.

The investigation of the miracle runs through the book. It is intended to unify its assemblage of stories and sketches, some set in the 1950s, others during the 1968 interregnum and afterward, including a few of Smiricky’s experiences in exile at an American college.

But although striking, the miracle theme is not told well enough to do the job. Here, as with some of the other incidents, Skvorecky intends mystery or at least suspense, but his handling of it is so murky, elliptical and chronologically chopped up that it is hard to follow, except in general terms.

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Skvorecky is merciless on the old Stalinists. But he is caustic about some of the enthusiasms displayed in 1968. He seems to have little use for Vaclav Havel; Hejla, a “world-famous playwright,” is described as seeking martyrdom while sitting in cafes amid admiring groupies.

Skvorecky is at his best with complexity, and particularly with one or two decidedly complex saints.

One is the forthright, peasant-stock Father Doufal, who likes women a lot and is assailed first by grace, then by the political police. Another is Irina, a school principal who regularly devises the most contorted Stalinist logic to protect her free-spirited pupils from the authorities.

In 1968, she is zealously blackened as an old regime apparatchik ; when the Russian tanks move in, she kills herself to protest them.

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There are a number of such vignettes in “The Miracle Game.” But they are overcome by the excessive familiar or inert material, and the ambitious structure that the author uses to cement them into a panorama.

Next: Judith Freeman reviews “Rima in the Weeds” (HarperCollins).


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