BOOK REVIEW / Holy fool in the war of words: The Republic of Whores - Josef Skvorecky, trs Paul Wilson: Faber, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
HERE is the second of Josef Skvorecky's five novels about Danny Smiricky. Banned before its full publication in Czechoslovakia in 1966 and again in 1970, it circulated illegally under the title The Tank Corps, a cult text that was copied and recopied by hand. It was finally published in Czech in Canada in 1971. The Miracle Game (1972, translated 1990) and The Engineer of Human Souls (1977, translated 1984) followed.

Smiricky's career closely follows that of his author: forced work for the Germans during the war; university; PhD in philosophy; military service in a Tank Division in the early 1950s; work in publishing; exile in Canada after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the 'Entry of the Friendly Armies rendering Brotherly Help to the Czechs and Slovaks'). In the 1,000 pages of The Miracle Game and The Engineer of Human Souls, Skvorecky moves his hero through their common life, varying, transposing, and intercutting scenes across 30 years and two continents. Old army friends figure from time to time, and in The Miracle Game Smiricky, like his author, is the author of an unpublishable book, an 'inconsequential bit of fun about the army' that is 'politically somewhat risky'.

This is The Republic of Whores, in which Smiricky's familiarly fallible character and open-window narrative function are already well established. Smiricky collects events; he doesn't impose himself. He is aporetic and benign, and suffers from instant

nostalgia, which doesn't wait for the present to turn into the past. He is addicted to the 'aquatic unreality' of love, faithless and guilty in his need for sex and sexual affection.

This is hard to get in the army. The troops are encouraged to take part in cultural self-improvement and to write love poems to their tanks. Instead, they sing plangent ballads to masturbation and put matches to their farts, competing for the fiercest flame in 'an unusual form of mass activity'. A few form liaisons with officers' wives - 20th-century Czech literature is unusual in its light attitude to adultery, and in the frequency with which seductions are initiated by women - but 'sexual starvation' prevails.

Language offers one kind of release, and by page 8 the translator has had to draw on 'dickhead', 'asshole', 'bag of shit', 'pain in the ass', and much worse in order to keep up with soldiers on night manoeuvres. This feels effortful; it becomes increasingly unclear whether English, with its famous resources, is a match for Number One Squadron of the Seventh Tank Battalion of the Eighth Tank Division of the Czech Army. But the difficulties are not peculiar to this book, as Cecil Parrott noted in his introduction to Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk (1920-23): 'A further complication is the richness of Czech 'bad language' as compared with our own . . . We cannot match (it) . . . Czech words of abuse generally involve domestic animals, excrement or parts of the body connected with it. The English relate mainly to sexual functions or perversions.'

The republic of whores is Czechoslovakia under communism, and the whores are of both sexes. Comrade Tank Commander Smiricky calls himself a whore because he can offer no resistance to his sexual and emotional promiscuity, but the whoredom is political as much as sexual. USSR-style communism enjoins universal deceit. The army camp runs on faking, cheating and bribery. Military training is a training in how to fudge and skive. It induces a peculiar delight in the misfortunes of others. It teaches how to cover up a cover-up of a cover-up, and produce incantatory documents like 'Instructions of the Divisional Political Department for the Political Backing of the Autumn Inspection of Political and Combat Readiness'.

Skvorecky writes under the politely insolent, holy-fool aegis of good soldier Svejk, but his humour is less acid and more direct than Hasek's. It is more sentimental and yet more realistic; more emotional and closer to sorrow. At the end of this century, Skvorecky's comic despair about the degradations of totalitarian communism trumps Hasek's equally comic contempt for the preposterous mechanisms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the despair is hidden, in mockery and affection. It is mitigated and undermined, and so sharpened, by Czech lightness, by recurrent sexual desire, and by the beautiful autumn nights that bring Smiricky's military service to an end.