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The Engineer of Human Souls

(Danny Smiřický)

by
4.16  ·  Rating details ·  841 ratings  ·  81 reviews
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, a ...more
Paperback, 592 pages
Published February 28th 2000 by Dalkey Archive Press (first published 1977)
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Agnieszka

One of the best novels I read from some time and though it’s only February I can safely assume also one of the most valuable reading experience this year. I loved the way it blended absurd with seriousness, nostalgia with grotesque, black humour with hearty laugh, homesickness with plights of life on foreign soil.

I liked its structure and polyphonic composition, The Engineer of Human Souls is divided into chapters titled by the names of writers that narrator Danny Smiricky lectures about at Toro
...more
Vit Babenco
May 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Joseph Stalin called writers ‘the engineers of human souls’… And exterminated them thoroughly.
I look up from the book. In Hakim’s eyes I see the scorn the men of the future hold for the men of yesterday, men to whom today still provides a brief respite before they are branded the betrayers of Hakim’s tomorrows. “Steer clear of the jugglers of concepts and feelings as carefully as you would avoid leprosy and the plague.”

He who isn’t with us is against us… Such is the one and only law of ideology.
...more
[P]
Jul 14, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I have long fantasised about leaving the UK, but it wasn’t until recently that I seriously considered the prospect. Indeed, a couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Prague, my favourite city, in order to feel the place as someone looking to live there [which obviously involves a different mind-set from that of someone going there on holiday]. To this end, I made an effort to speak to locals, of course, but focussed my attention on those who had moved from elsewhere. As you would expect, there is a ...more
Hugh
This is a book I have not read for many years, but since it does not have many reviews here, I'd like to add a few words. It is a magnificent novel - complex, readable, nostalgic, irreverent and often funny. Like several of Škvorecký's other books, it is partly a semi-autobiographical rites of passage story about the life of Danny, a young teacher in post-war Czechoslovakia, this one is also partly about his later life in exile in Canada.
MJ Nicholls
A whirling epic from a master-in-pieces: a piece of wartime life manufacturing messerschmitts; a piece of life in Canadian exile as a professor teaching a cast of oddballs about Poe, Conrad, Lovecraft, and co; a piece of life hobnobbing with the spooked and strange émigré community; a piece of life in love with village girls and Scandinavian students; a piece of epistles of other lives in pieces; a piece of mind and no peace in mind. Ladies: let this man’s splendid arms wrap themselves around yo ...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
I actually approached this book with trepidation. It is thick, with almost six hundred pages of the usual hardbound size book. The title is imposing, the author's name has the same foreboding sound as that of Kafka, the cover shows a typewriter with a sheet of paper flying upwards off it stair-like, with a blurb by Milan Kundera ("Magnificent! A magnum opus!") who is himself not easy to understand.

It turned out to be a delightful read, Czechoslovakia's answer to Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita in
...more
Angela
May 14, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: fans of Lorrie Moore, Viktor Pelevin, and Ivan Klima
Shelves: czech
"The Engineer of Human Souls" is a 20th century Czech novel and like every obediently disobedient 20th century Czech novel, it tells the story of a dissident male writer in trouble with his government for reasons that seem especially hazy in light of his more pressing preoccupation with philandering. With the surrounding political turmoil, meaning is extracted from love and art.

Dan Smiricky is a Canadian English professor and Bohemian exile from Kostelec. He goes about life teaching literature t
...more
Czarny Pies
Sep 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: czech-lit
Czech émigré Josopeh Skvorecky is one of my favorite writers. Skvorecky is a master at describing what communism is like without demonizing its opportunistic supporters in his home country.

I can think of no one else who is better than Skvorecky at describing the environment in Toronto during the seventies and eighties. During this time one met central Europeans everywhere: at work, in my neighbourhood and at all levels of schooling. They all lived through the experiences described by Skvorecky i
...more
Tsung
Apr 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is the follow-up to The Cowards, written about 20 years before. If you appreciated the Czech style of storytelling, you will not be disappointed with this one. There is noticeable progression in the writing style, which seems more mature, pensive and organized in this second book. It is a semi-autobiographical work featuring the inimitable Danny Smiricky. While the novel primarily revolves around Danny, there isn’t much of an overarching plot. Spanning a thirty year time period, it features ...more
Jan jr. Vaněk
Aug 31, 2010 rated it it was amazing
THE Great Czechoslovak Novel. Made me cry when I read it at 16, and it still does. Also laugh wildly, and think a lot.
Richard Newton
May 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is the story of Danny Sviricyi, a saxophone playing writer and Czech émigré who left communist Czechoslovakia for Canada and worked as a professor of English literature in Toronto - by Josef Skvorecky, a saxophone playing writer and Czech émigré who left communist Czechoslovakia for Canada and worked as a professor of English literature in Toronto. I think it's reasonable to say that it's probably fair to assume there is a fair bit of autobiographical material here - although it remains a n ...more
Ronald Morton
We live in a world of absurd circumstances, accidental, perhaps the unfathomable caprices of a cruelly jesting God
I find that there is potentially a lot to say about this book, but, at the same time, in its straightforwardness, there might not be much that is necessary.


The book is centered around Czech exile Danny Smiricky, a literature professor living in Canada in the 1970’s. The book alternates between scenes from Danny’s youth living in Czechoslovakia – both during World War II and the
...more
Jonfaith
Sep 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
A swelerting summer delivered me into contact with this tome, in fact I bought it in Bloomington and then collpased into it, the parallel gravity of its temportal tracks swept me along. Sadly, I haven't been able to replicate the effect with other works by Skvorecky.
Czarny Pies
Jun 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Czech émigré Josopeh Skvorecky is one of my favorite writers. Skvorecky is a master at describing what communism is like without demonizing its opportunistic supporters in his home country.

I can think of no one else who is better than Skvorecky at describing the environment in Toronto during the seventies and eighties. During this time one met central Europeans everywhere: at work, in my neighbourhood and at all levels of schooling. They all lived through the experiences described by Skvorecky i
...more
Bill
Aug 31, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: anyone
Skvorecky, a Czech emigre who left his native land for Canada after the Soviet put down of the Prague Spring, and with Milan Kundera and Bohumil Hrabal is one of that nation's great writers has really written two books here. In the book's dual plots - Professor Danny Smiricky looks back at his young wartime adventures while negotiating tenure and academic politics at a Toronto university - he manages both to capture the transition from young adulthood to adulthood and adulthood into old age.

If
...more
Bruce
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was ok
This book disappointed me. I probably went in with too high expectations, given the bombastic language from the reviewers plastered all over the cover, suggesting that it was one of the best novels of the past few decades.

You've already seen the plot summary in other reviews. The book is punctuated by a half dozen chapters, each named after a major writer. But each of those chapters only deals loosely with that writer, usually through references to the college course taught by the semi-autobiog
...more
Ian
Oct 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1001-books, favorites
Don't let anything put you off from reading this book. Don't be deterred by its imposing bulk, the author's ominously East European name or the grim title (a quote from Stalin). This a wonderful novel: genuinely funny, with romance, pathos and a fantastic literary nerdiness. Danny Smiricky is a lecturer in American Literature in Toronto. He can smile with jaded amusement at his naive students, as his life travels back in time to his native Czechoslavakia, sabotaging parts for Nazi Messerschmitts ...more
Ian Robb
Sep 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book. It is one of those books that I did not want to finish.
Juliet Wilson
Jun 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: novels
I first read this book 20 years ago when I was living in Malawi. It was someone elses copy so I left it over there not realising it would take me 20 years to find another copy....

It's a wonderful book, focussing on the lives of Czech emigrants in Canada, flicking back and forth between their life there and their earlier lives in Czechslovakia.

It's thought provoking and entertaining, and well worth reading a second time...
Stacy
I really don't know what to say about this book. The Engineer of Human Souls was an interesting and yet confusing book. Honestly, I'm not sure I understand everything that happened in this tale of a Czech immigrant now living in Canada. The story jumps around frequently and requires the utmost concentration. Character's names change and/or overlap at times. It is almost like reading somebody's journal but with the pages all out of order. The stories are interesting, though at times, like in a jo ...more
Vasha7
May 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A description of this novel can give some idea of the various materials it's woven together from, but won't mention any of the large gallery of riotous, pathetic, human characters. Any book as full as this one -- telling only part of the protagonist's life but suggesting that there's much more; moving through three or more levels of time at once; incorporating the letters of many characters in a way that never feels irrelevant; including, as well, the reading of American literature, illuminated ...more
Jim Golmon
Sep 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A terrific book by a Czech writer who emigrated to Canada after the 1968 Soviet invasion. Probably somewhat autobiographical. I didn't want this book to end. Not an easy read. Much detail, and many characters. Its full of life details on the Nazi occupation during World War II and elements of resistance to that, the fear of the state and informers during the Soviet era, and the brief blossoming of hope before the 1968 invasion. Also full of literary gems as the protagonist ends up as an English ...more
Sarah
May 12, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
If Milan Kundera had gotten together with Orhan Pamuk to rewrite Snow with more of a postmodern flourish...Toss in 'the immigrant experience' and a dash of post-war paranoia, and we're getting close to this book. Absolutely loved the lit-classroom dialogues on literature and politics and the accompanying allusions and metaphors. I wasn't in love with his prose, however, as it was burdened from time to time (and time again) with cliche. Still a rich and resounding read.
Esthy
Feb 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
After reading The Miracle Game (more adventures of Danny Smiricky!) I was extremely happy to see that The Engineer of Human Souls is nearly 600 pages. Awesome, a good thing that won't end too soon. And this is really good, brilliant. Like an I.B. Singer novel on steroids. It's dark in the sense that anything that stems from life in the Eastern Block usually is, but the element of black humor/absurdity made this book difficult to put down. It's truly a literary treat.
Anton Prosser
Sep 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I re-read this book every so often. It's such a chunky trade paperback, but I bought my copy when I was on a student exchange in Prague and I love it so much. There's something about the way that Skvorecky writes, with a mix of hope and melancholy. It never ceases to make me ache. It also never stops being relevant in some way to my life. The enormity of the change in people comes through each time I read it. This novel is just beautiful.
Bob
Aug 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: world-literature
We rejoin Danny Smiricky (from THE COWARDS), as an expatriate professor in Toronto, where he explores his present life of pretty student, and Czech secret agents, as well as some of the unresolved stories of his past during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia during World War II.
Dyani
Jul 12, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Sublime, hilarious, long (but worth it), perhaps sentimental, saying orginal things about religion, playing with time, inimitable character, I wrote my thesis on it.
Maggie Stewart-Grant
I can say no more just now but that this book is excellent. For people like me, I highly recommend it. I will do an extended review at a later date.
Lucie Novak
Jun 19, 2014 rated it it was amazing
If you want to read about the Czech post war history- at home and in exile, read this. A great book.Full of humanity. Canadians will like it, too.
Vishal
May 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
‘There is beauty everywhere on earth, but there is greater beauty in those places where one feels that sense of ease which comes from no longer having to put off one’s dreams until some improbable future-a future inexorably shrinking away; where the fear which has pervaded one’s life suddenly vanishes because there is nothing to be afraid of’

So the main character of The Engineer of Human Souls observes from the relative safety of suburban Toronto, reflecting on his escape from a nation strangled
...more
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Josef Škvorecký, CM was a Czech writer and publisher who spent much of his life in Canada. Škvorecký was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1980. He and his wife were long-time supporters of Czech dissident writers before the fall of communism in that country. By turns humorous, wise, eloquent and humanistic, Škvorecký's fiction deals with several themes: the horrors of tot ...more

Other books in the series

Danny Smiřický (6 books)
  • The Swell Season: A Text on the Most Important Things in Life
  • The Cowards
  • The Republic of Whores
  • The Miracle Game
  • Two Murders in My Double Life

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