A superstar of Czechoslovakian and Canadian literature has passed away. Josef Škvorecký (M) has lost his fight with cancer at the age of 87.
Josef was born in Czechoslovakia in 1924 and later emigrated to Canada in 1968, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He became a Canadian citizen in 1972. He had a challenging time as a young man, including spending time as a forced labourer in Nazi Germany and as a soldier in the Czechoslovak Army from 1952-54. He entered university in Prague to study medicine but quickly switched to liberals arts, graduating with a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1951. He began his writing career in earnest with the publication of the novels The End of the Nylon Age (1956) and The Cowards (1958). Both books were quickly banned by the Communist Government.
A longstanding champion of political freedom and the freedom of expression, Škvorecký and his wife Zdena Salivarova continued their support of Czech writers by creating 68 Publishers in 1971, a Toronto based publishing house for the works of banned Czech and Slovak writers. It was named in honour of the Prague Spring of 1968.
He was awarded numerous awards including being made a Member of the Order of Canada (1992) and the Czechoslovakian Order of the White Lion.
He was multifaceted in his writing output, penning literary fiction, mystery novels, non-fiction, poetry, translations, and numerous magazine articles and radio shows. He was also named a Professor Emeritus of English and Film at the University of Toronto. Interestingly, he continued to write his books in his native language despite residing in Canada since 1968.
“I am a Czech and I am a loyal citizen of Canada,” he told an interviewer in 2006. “Canada is the country where, for the first time in my adult life, I found freedom, including the freedom to be a Czech and at the same time a Canadian. My real country is the Czech language, which is the tongue I learned from my mother.”
He was the winner of the 1984 Governor General’s Literary Award for English Language Fiction for The Engineer of Human Souls (M) (translated by Paul Wilson). His last novel is Ordinary Lives (M) (2008).
He also penned a memoir in 1997, Headed for the Blues: a memoir with ten stories (M).
“The Engineer of Human Souls is a labyrinthine comic novel that investigates the journey and plight of novelist Danny Smiricky, a Czech immigrant to Canada. As the novel begins, he is a professor of American literature at a college in Toronto. Out of touch with his young students, and hounded by the Czech secret police, Danny is let loose to roam between past and present, adopting whatever identity that he chooses or has been imposed upon him by History.
As adventuresome, episodic, bawdy, comic, and literary as any novel written in the past twenty-five years, The Engineer of Human Souls is worthy of the subtitle Skvorecky gave it: “An Entertainment on the Old Themes of Life, Women, Fate, Dreams, The Working Class, Secret Agents, Love and Death.” – Publisher