The Miracle Game

by Josef Skvorecky
448 pages,
ISBN: 0886193427

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History`S Handmaiden
by Douglas Glover

JOSEF SKVORECKY GREW UP under the sign of epistemological relativism in the pseudo- Marxist state of post-war Czechoslovakia, and knows that truth -- 11 that elusive perpetrator of the mystery of our lives" -- is history`s handmaiden, that this month`s truth is next month`s treason. In The Miracle Game, subtitled "A Political Whodunnit," the latest instalment of Skvorecky`s Danny Smiricky saga (see also The Cowards, The Bass Saxophone, The Swell Season, and his Governor General`s Award-winning The Engineer of Human Souls), everything hangs on the truth and everyone hang,, for the truth. Everyone, that is, except Danny, whose cagey cynicism and weather eye for the shifts of history and party position keep him out of trouble save for the occasional sexual embarrassment. The Miracle Game gives us Danny (the former teenage Czech jazz musician and smalltime anti- Nazi saboteur who will one day teach literature at a Toronto university) at 25, arriving in 1949 at the Hronov Health and Social Workers` School for teenage girls -- with a bad case of the clap. He fends off the seductive attentions of 17-year-old Vixi by claiming to be a devout Catholic, then falls asleep during mass at the local church, just when a statue of St. Joseph miraculously moves. Like St. Peter denying Christ, Danny goes through the rest of the novel denying that he was in the church at the crucial moment, but the miracle follows him like a bad conscience. Almost 20 years later, during the Prague Spring of 1968, with journalists and intellectuals falling over themselves (ignominiously and/or hypocritically) to reveal the Communist excesses of the past, Danny rekindles his now adulterous affair with Vixi and, through her Catholic poet-husband, becomes drawn into an investigation of what really happened that day at the Church of the Virgin Mary under Mare`s Head Hill. For the truth of the matter, like every other truth in a modern Marxist state (perhaps in any state, but that`s another argument), is a shifting thing. The priest who served mass that day may or may not have been tortured to death by Czech secret police; he may or may not have cooperated in making a propaganda film about the miracle, which may or may not have inadvertently revealed a bungled police plot to discredit the miracle. This is a clever, sprawling, and often hilarious novel, which, like its companion piece The Engineer of Human Souls, deploys a cut-and-paste structure loosely held together by a thinnish plot (the detective novel conceit). Themes and sub-plot lines also oscillate back and forth between two widely separated time periods -- in this case, between 1949, the year following the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, and the Prague Spring of 1968. (In Skvorecky novels, characters don`t so much change as reveal something new about themselves every time a Czech government falls.) The virtue of this structure is that Skvorecky can make maximum use of his favourite literary technique, the ironic transition. Stories start, are interrupted by other stories, resume, and are interrupted again, all in a breezy, hard-boiled style punctuated by stark revelations of state brutality. Comic juxtaposition is everything -- a nursing nun examines Danny`s infected penis while telling him the story of a saintly priest sentenced to forced labour in a uranium mine. The Czech secret police act like a bunch of Keystone cops trying to outwit a rural parish priest -- but they tear out the priest`s fingernails before he dies. Skvorecky`s Czechoslovakia, like Milan Kundera`s, is a country where an ill-timed joke can get you sent to prison for 25 years, a world where comedy and horror mix with maddening irrationality. This is also a world in which you don`t talk about anything, or you talk, as Danny does, about women as a safe alternative to politics. And you sleep around as an alternative to acting freely in a political arena -- the Marxist neo-Victorianism always has concealed a secret promiscuous cynicism in the realm of relationships. Skvorecky`s novels are often exuberantly sexist in a kind of macho-avuncular mid-European way that portrays women as pure sexual creatures who run on feelings and hormones as opposed to thoughts. Danny will insist on saying things like, "I tried, for the fourth time, to explain the philosophical difference between subjectivity and objectivity. But her logical powers were too feminine." Danny`s world-weary cynicism -- "God is a cynic too, after all; in these times, can wisdom be anything but cynical?" -- can he seen, on the one hand, as pure survival instinct, but can also become a little tiresome and unfocused (or pompously superior, as it does in The Engineer of Human Souls, with its facile jibes at Danny`s empty-headed Canadian students). There is always a risk with cynicism (as Valmont discovers in Choderlos de Laclos`s novel Dangerous Liaisons) that it will become so habitual that we are unable to recognize truth, virtue, or genuine feeling when they do appear. Thus The Miracle Game takes several gratuitous stabs at a certain "world-famous playwright" named Hejl, who can be none other than the current Czech president, Vaclav Havel. (The book is both veiled autobiography -- the broad arc of Smiricky`s life corresponds to the arc of Skvorecky`s life -- and something of a roman a clef. Farley Mowat, for example, makes a delightful cameo appearance as an unnamed Canadian novelist wearing kilts at a Vienna literary conference.) At the same time, this cynicism provides an essential neutral ground within the novel against which the various thematic strands can be reflected. As a man who believes in nothing (he is a nonbelieving Catholic and a "progressive" non-party member), Danny seems well placed to examine the meaning of the words "faith," "miracle," "saint," and "reason" as they are used by people caught in the dogmatic teeth of the novel`s two dominant and antithetical ideologies Catholicism and Communism (using terms common in Marxist analysis, e.g., there is much talk of subjective and objective conditions). In the end, however, the perpetrator of the Hronov miracle isn`t truth at all but Danny`s literary double, an equally cynical medical man named Gellen who also beds the ubiquitous Vixi (she has children by both men). By engineering the ambiguous miracle, Gellen plays devil`s advocate with both sides. But lives are ruined, men tortured and murdered, for Gellen`s little joke; and it may be that Skvorecky is reaching for some larger conclusion about complicity and cynicism. For all his precise irony and moral skewering, Danny Smiricky seems tired. For all his locker- room jollity, his predatory and superior attitude toward women -- he is a self-described "pussy pirate" reveals an unexamined spiritual vacuousness. After all, another Czech government has miraculously fallen and the moral activism of Hejl-Havel has, for now at least, proved itself superior to the alienated womanizing of Smiricky.

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