BOOK REVIEW / Dogma in the bordello: 'The Republic of Whores' - Josef Skvorecky Tr. Paul Wilson: Faber & Faber, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 21 May 1994
The Tank Corps, as it was originally known, circulated in samizdat during the 1960s and was all set to see the light of day in 1968, but the Russians arrived and the entire print run was pulped. After the Velvet Revolution it duly appeared in Prague bookshops, but with several of the author's other works queueing up to enter the English language, we have had to twiddle our thumbs and wait for Paul Wilson's translation.
In Skvorecky's Smiricky novels, told through the eyes of his alter ego Danny, the author's experiences of Nazism, Communism and Canadian exile have been moulded into a multi-volume fictional biography. In the course of this undertaking, he has also shown us round a workshop of literary styles.
The Republic of Whores has always been described as Skvorecky's homage to Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, in which a common soldier ridicules military authority by showing excessive obedience. The cartoon illustrations further prompt comparison with Hasek's masterpiece, but there are problems. For one, Danny is a lot brighter than the good soldier, who was never one for ironic detachment. Also, Skvorecky had not read Svejk at the time of writing, 'which corroborates a hypothesis I have,' he wrote, 'that (my novel) is not literary satire, but plain realism'.
If this portrait of Czechoslovak military life is realism, then no wonder they needed Soviet tanks to quell the Prague Spring. Every time a lazy or incompetent or stupid or insolent soldier fouls up yet another basic article of artillery drill, the colonel of the Seventh Battalion asks, 'How is this possible?' According to ideological prescription, military error is unimaginable. So much for ideology.
Any seasoned Skvorecky reader might have known what to expect of his portrait of conscript life, but The Republic of Whores lays it on extra thick. These soldiers sing rousing songs about masturbation, ignite their farts, show less than total respect to officers and dream of the girl back home. Army life, eh? It's wonderful how it transcends arbitrary frontiers.
Danny keeps his distance from it all, covering for other miscreants, offering the minimum necessary obeisance to authority: unlike The Cowards or The Miracle Game, this is not particularly his story, although he does contrive to seduce an officer's wife, one of those svelte, melancholy creatures Skvorecky, the arch melancholic, draws so well.
This is a satire too. The system is not drawn quite as absurdly as in, say, Voinovic's Moscow 2042 or Kundera's The Joke, but there is an undertow of real disgust. Danny chases skirt as assiduously as any of his more neanderthal colleagues, but that doesn't stop him blurting, 'We're all whores - a republic of whores'. Self-knowledge, a recognition of his own shortcomings as much as others', separates him from the pack.
Skvorecky reserves the final insult in this bordello of inflexible dogma for a poet called Neumann who judges the military writing competition. He is 'the kind of writer that people in reactionary literary circles like to call 'an old whore' . . . he didn't place a great deal of importance on his own integrity, and therefore literature, even genuine literature, no longer gave him any pleasure.' The final insult to a writer without principles could only come in one form. Skvorecky cuckolds him.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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