The double-life of Josef Skvorecky

He has been living in exile since 1969, but the Czech novelist has never left the land of his youth in his writing. On the eve of the publication of his latest work, he tells Jasper Rees about the experiences that shaped the first great Afro-Czech-American novel
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First, the surname. It's only human to dodge books by authors with names you can't pronounce. A Slavonic thicket of consonants on the spine of a book, you naturally presume, advertises a novel of comparable impactedness. So, to clear the phonetic fog, Skvorecky reads as "Shkworetskee". After he left Prague at the gloomy dawn of 1969, the funeral of the suicidal protester Jan Palach just a day-old memory, its owner considered anglicising the name to Squoretsky. The friendlier spelling might have shifted a few more units, but would have been a terrible betrayal. He has come across a Dr Svorecky who also lives in Toronto, and there's a village outside Prague called Skvorec. But the forbidding surname will die with Josef Skvorecky.

The novels, needless to say, are not remotely impacted. Mostly inspired by his own tragicomic tussles with ridiculous Nazis and lumpen Communists, they prowl through a past darkened by doctrine but brightened by blissful flirtations and carefree jazz. For the best account of how decent folk tried to carry on drinking, romancing, thinking, joking in poor old occupied mittel-Europe, Skvorecky's are the novels to come to. But they also look into the bitter-sweet business of exile, not just the type of exile Czech novelists are always mournfully banging on about, but the exile that cuts us all off from our own youth. It's all there in the Engineer of Human Souls, the masterpiece that uses a Conradian cut-and-paste narrative technique to nip between Skvorecky's adolescence in his war-torn home town, the Soviet invasion of 1968, and blandly comfortable Canada. He says he's not one for browsing back through his own books, but when I ask him which of his novels he'd take to a desert island, the old sentimentalist nominates The Swell Season "because that's part of my youth. I feel at home in my memories."

The latest entertainment is The Bride of Texas, a many splendoured tale from the American Civil War. It gets in close enough to history to smell the breath of bewhiskered generals and gentlemen slave-drivers, but it largely follows two sets of immigrants: the Czech volunteers who shouldered arms with General Sherman, and those other involuntary Americans whose emancipation was underwritten by Union victory. Call it the Great Afro- Czech-American novel.

That word "latest" needs qualification. Skvorecky began a massive programme of research into the Civil War 14 years ago, and finished the 600-page novel the year before the Velvet Revolution. It was brought out by the exile press the author and his wife ran in Toronto (68 Publishers), but not published in Czechoslovakia until 1992. Novelists who write in a "little" language from the old Eastern Bloc are used to stalled schedules imposed by translation and samizdat, but Skvorecky's peculiar biography tells of uniquely interminable delay. The Cowards, his hip, Hemingwayesque debut set in his Bohemian home town during the Reich's retreat, lurked in a drawer for years. Published in 1958, it was the first Czech novel to forsake the language's stiff formality for slang. The reviewers macheted it and Skvorecky lost his job as an editor. Some crime stories starring his "mournful" Lieutenant Boruvka appeared under a pseudonym, but Czechs had to wait for the Prague Spring, and then another 21 years for the Velvet Revolution, to read the more directly autobiographical fiction starring his alter- ego Danny Smiricky.

For several of the books, the journey into English has been just as circuitous. The Tank Corps, about his National Service, took nearly 40 years to enter our language; The Miracle Game, about a priest accused by the Communists of faking a miracle, nearly 20. Had It for the Blues, "a sort of summing up of my life, because I had a premonition I wouldn't live very long", was written when he turned 50. He's now 72, and it has just appeared in the States. He has taken the precaution of writing his new novel in both Czech and English. (But don't hold your breath: he hasn't even told his British publishers, Faber, about it yet.)

In The Bride to Texas, the focus of interest is still love, loss, exile, liberty and the comical travails of the Czech abroad, but transplanted away from Skvorecky's own experiences to those of his compatriots who preceded him across the Atlantic by more than a century. He had already written a book about Dvorak's sojourn in America. Why did he move on to the civil war?

"When I was doing research for Dvorak in Love, I came across some brief memoirs printed in the 19th-century Czech calendars, as they are called, so I became interested, and then I went deeper into it and found out that there were quite a few Czechs in very interesting positions, who marched with Sherman and so on."

During the long research, there emerged a secondary project, to buff up the reputation of Czech soldiery. Though a source of tremendous literary enrichment, Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk has perpetuated the national caricature, reinforced by the collective shrug the nation seemed to make after the crushing of the Prague Spring, of the Czech as a joker with his head in the sand. The high farce of The Tank Corps scarcely makes amends. The Bride of Texas tells of one yellow braggart whose Falstaffian claims of valour no one believes. He's even called Shake, an American rewording of Svejk. "The Czechs were great warriors in the Middle Ages," says Skvorecky, "but in modern times they never fought for their own cause. Czech soldiers were drafted into the Austrian army and their heart was not in it. But in every major war there was a contingent of Czechs who fought with the enemy of Austria or Germany - the Czech airmen, for instance, who took part in the Battle of Britain and distinguished themselves very much indeed. And there was such a contingent in the Civil War in the Union army."

Another reason why Skvorecky turned backwards towards Czech-American history was the worry that he had exhausted the well of material supplied by his own life. For fans, though, the dream ticket would surely be Skvorecky on his liberated homeland, only he claims he has no plan "to write anything about the contemporary Czech Republic, because I do not live there and so it would be a sort of tourist view of the country."

None the less, the new bilingual novel to be published in Prague next month seems to contradict this claim. In The Two Murders of My Double Life, "one of the murders, that happens in Canada, is the kind of murder that Agatha Christie wrote about - it may be very interesting, and well constructed but not real life. The other is a real bloody murder that happens in Prague. It's more metaphorical, the murder of the soul, really." He adds, alarmingly, that it arose out of an incident in which the name of his wife Zdena Salivarova mysteriously made it on to an ancient but recently published list of agents of the StB, the secret police. "She charged the Ministry of Interior for spreading false rumours about herself and she won the trial in Prague. So she was cleansed of that suspicion but it did terrible things to her. It impaired her health and everything and I don't think she will ever fully recover from that wound."

Skvorecky has had his own health scares too. When I met him four years ago, his doctor had put him on a diet, and he drank two pints of Guinness during the interview. White-haired and plump, he certainly looks and sounds his age, but a hip replacement last year, a winter spent in Florida, and an operation that "really smashed" a gallstone this year seem to run parallel with a surge in energy. The Swell Season, and some detective stories, were popularly adapted for Czech television. His film adaptation of a Poe crime story is released at Christmas. Another script, based on his own The Tenor Saxophonist's Stories, will be filmed in 1998. Writing, he says, is "like a sickness. I won't get rid of it."

In trips back to his native Machod, he has re-met all the young things, now in their seventies, whose resistance to Danny Smiricky's charms is documented in so many novels. Surely the sentimental rake is allowed one last outing, if only to complete the circle? "I have been thinking about it for some time," he concedes, "because there will be a reunion of almost all the classes of the high school that I graduated from in Machod. We were 21 people in the class and I think only two have died so far. So maybe I will attempt to do it. That's a nice idea. You reminded me."

These nostalgic forays to his birthplace stir all the more memories now that his old flames, known in the novels as saucy Maria and icy Irena, have blossoming granddaughters. The same age now as when Skvorecky wooed their grannies, they look like the ghosts of his past come back to life. And they're just as much of a tease. He met Irena's granddaughter at the premiere of The Swell Season, "and Irena told me: `Do you know what she said? "Grandma, why didn't you have anything with him? He's such a nice- looking man." ' So I would have had more luck with the granddaughter. But it's too late for that."

`The Bride of Texas' is published on Monday by Faber pounds 16.99, translated by Kaca Polackova Henley