Boston — ``Just imagine,'' Josef Skvorecky asks the readers of his widely acclaimed novel, ``just imagine Joseph Stalin calling together the Soviet Politburo and saying: `Today we are going to appoint an engineer of human souls. His duty will be to construct new souls which are in perfect tune with our Marxist-Leninist ideology.' '' The hero of the novel answers back: ``Excuse me, comrade, but souls cannot be constructed. You can construct a machine, but not a human being.'' Fortunately for us, the young man escapes the fate of dissidents in the Soviet Union, and instead of ending up in a Siberian labor camp, he ends up in Canada, writing Czech novels of dissent in his comfortable academic surroundings at the University of Toronto.
The young man is the alter ego of Joseph Skvorecky, now a middle-aged, well-rounded professor in tweeds. He is seated at a conference table here to discuss his 16th novel in exile, the ironically titled ``Engineer of Human Souls'' (translated by Paul Wilson; Knopf, New York, 571 pp., $17.95), which is ``my own story,'' he says.
The novel recounts in vivid, multi-layered juxtaposition of past and present the experiences of a Czech 'emigr'e professor who recalls his past in Nazi-dominated Czechoslovakia while teaching, 40 years later, at a Canadian college in Toronto. In spite of its humor, it is a painful tale of a society whose people are repressed and brutalized by a totalitarian system, first under the Nazis, then under the communists.
Skvorecky, who left Prague after the Soviet invasion in 1968, has made the Western Hemisphere his home and claims that he has no nostalgia for the old country. Nonetheless, his books -- which are written in Czech and printed by his wife's publishing press in Toronto -- are read by expatriates as well as by his countrymen within Czechoslovakia, where he is blacklisted. There, his earlier novels have been banned and his name erased from the roster of Czech writers.
His books are smuggled into the country and read clandestinely by students and intellectuals, who in turn smuggle out their unsigned letters to him expressing their admiration for his uncensored writing. The same thing happens in ``Engineer of Human Souls'' to Danny Smiricky, a Czech 'emigr'e professor of English. Smiricky, the protagonist, receives letters from the friends of his past, communications that anchor him in the repressed regime. ``To read a Czech book which is free, which tells SKVORECKYSKVORECKY things as they are, is quite an experience in Czechoslovakia, where everything is banned,'' Skvorecky says.
Smiling gently from behind his horn-rimmed glasses, Skvorecky adds that several people were even fired for reading his novels. ``Not only are they banned, but circulating them is considered the spreading of anti-state propaganda,'' he says. Nonetheless, Skvorecky is heartened by the fact that he has readers within his native country, because it means that ``the government has not succeeded in brainwashing the younger generation.''
Czechoslovakia, he says patriotically, cannot be isolated intellectually, not only because it has always been a part of Central rather than Eastern Europe, but also because it has ``a strong tradition of democracy.'' Skvorecky is concerned with the survival of democracy because he says it is ``so vulnerable.''
The death of democracy and the reign of totalitarian regimes in communist-ruled countries is a leitmotif in many of his works, and especially in the ``Engineer of Human Souls.'' Smiricky recaptures his past experiences through flashbacks and letters, and he tries to imbue his ``innocent'' Canadian students with the meaning, if not the experience, of freedom.
``Freedom,'' Skvorecky says, ``is like breathing: If there is air, you don't realize that you are breathing. But if you are deprived of that air, then you know something is wrong.'' In the novel, the young Danny plots to overthrow the country's communist regime and to found a National Liberation Army of the Czechoslovak people, but ``reading or talking about freedom'' is inadequate, Svorecky says. ``One of the tragedies of the world is that very few people can develop convincing ideas by just reading books. Very few people who have not lived in totalitarian regimes understand their nature.''
Nonetheless, Danny's classes on Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Fitzgerald, Conrad, and Lovecraft are almost excuses for his discourses on freedom. His students are frustratingly uncomprehending or indifferent, but Danny persists. The ``horror'' in the ``Heart of Darkness,'' for instance, is the horror of totalitarianism. The ``Scarlet Letter,'' in his interpretation, foreshadows the Star of David which Jews had to wear in World War II. In every writer, he unravels the repression of freedom and the tyranny of totalitarian systems.
His conversation is animated with countless little stories, just like his novel, which illustrate his convictions. For example, his attitude toward artistic and literary censorship: ``Four books of mine were seized and banned by the censors,'' he says. Then, grinning, he adds, ``Just imagine that Mark Twain would live in a Southern slavery state before the First World War and that state would have a censorhip as effective as contemporary communist censorship in Czechoslovakia.
``Now, this Mark Twain would be a young writer, very ambitious, and he would get the idea for `Huckleberry Finn.' But he would know that a book on that subject would never get published because of censorship. So he would change the stress. Instead of slavery, he would write a book about the health habits of various cultures that are too tightly laced. It would certainly be a very funny novel, because he is a writer of genius, but it would be very different from `Huckleberry Finn.' That is exactly what happens in Czechoslovakia. There are young writers there who have talent, but who cannot address the centers of the burning issues of that society.''
The past seems to be more vivid in the novel ``because it recalls my youth,'' Svorecky says. ``Most writers really remember their youth, because that's when you really live. Afterwards, you exist.'' Danny, like Skvorecky, oscillates between these two worlds -- the ``free'' world of the academic, the world of ideas and sports cars and junk food and modern architecture and complacency, and the world of communism, where poets, like Jan, commit suicide because they have been silenced. There is yet another world in the novel into which he escaped -- the world of the Czech 'emigr'e community of Toronto, which is alive with misfits and malaise. All of these stories are synthesized brilliantly by sharp cuts and shifts and cinematic montages and collages. ``I wanted to capture,'' Skvorecky says, ``the chaotic nature of modern life.''
Skvorecky says that he does not miss his country. His real homeland is Czech culture, ``the homeland we carry in our hearts.'' He is at home in Canada, because he can write with ``no obstacles.'' ``For ultimately,'' he adds, this time quoting the Czech writer Karel Capek, ``I have known such utter poverty that my heart has bled and yet the worst thing is injustice -- the loss of freedom.''