Czech Sleuth Tracks the Truth

By , Thomas D'Evelyn is general editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

ACCORDING to the hero of this marvelous and poignant novel, life is "a whodunit in which the perpetrator is truth but can never be run down." On one level, "The Miracle Game" covers events in Czechoslovakia between 1949 and 1970 - between its inclusion in the Soviet bloc and the Soviet invasion that squashed the frail flowers of the 1968 Prague Spring. On another level, it's the odyssey of Danny Smiricky. Danny may bear a certain resemblance to his creator, Josef Skvorecky, except that Skvorecky left Czechoslovakia in 1949 and lives in Toronto, where, with his wife, he runs a Czech publishing house. Danny appeared in Skvorecky's "The Engineer of Human Souls," which won the Canadian Governor General's Award in 1984.

Danny is a third-rate saxman turned detective novelist turned librettist. He belongs neither to the church nor to the party. He's a ladies' man and something of a wise guy.

As the novel opens, he is teaching at a girls' school in a lovely Czech village called Hronov and suffering the consequences of a short, much-regretted liaison with a Russian-language teacher. Danny meets his avenging angel in one of his students. A blend of Lolita and wood nymph, Vixi is an orphan whose yellow T-shirt and dirty tennis shoes only emphasize her loveliness. In his agony, and against her tough common sense, Danny manages to turn Vixi into a good Roman Catholic. The ironies of their long fr iendship - by the end of the novel, Vixi is a symbol for Czechoslovakia - inspire some of Skvorecky's most memorable moments.

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Drowsing in church next to Vixi, Danny misses the miracle of the title, but Vixi thinks the wooden statue of St. Joseph points to her because of her sin with Danny. Enter the KGB. Miracles threaten the Soviet order. The priest is forced to confess the crying statue was a trick and is murdered. Or so it looks 20 years later, when the Dubcek thaw invites the Soviet forces back into Czechoslovakia. Danny never admits he was a witness, he was - typically - asleep at the time, but he does conscientiously fol low the story as liberal journalists and Catholics try to make a case against the KGB and for the authenticity of the miracle.

Politics, religion, sex, a vulnerable, skeptical hero, a voluptuous nymphet: fictional boilerplate! Yet "The Miracle Game" is terribly moving. Just as Danny is tossed about by his conflicting commitments, so is the reader.

This tableau of martyrs, opportunists, ideologues, sycophants, thugs, decadent humanists, and anxious but honest journalists may make the '60s in the United States look pale by comparison. Certainly when Danny visited some radicals in Connecticut he was not impressed. Back home, his tolerant gaze includes Soviet tank drivers - in a brilliantly comic scene - and hippie reformers in the same blink. Paul Wilson's translation is studded with Americanisms, some of them anachronistic, and reinforc es the reader's tendencies to see parallels everywhere.

With the makeup of a typical existentialist hero, Danny is rather a hero of the "real" world, the world as we see it in the late 20th century, a world bursting with heterogeneous, sometimes conflicting symbols. As he loses some of his youthful arrogance, Danny becomes increasingly vulnerable to free-floating meanings.

To a greater extent than any other modern character I can think of, Danny lives in history. Not history as rewritten by ideologues of Marxist or liberal stamp, but history as a distinctly human experience, open on one end toward self-criticism and toward transcending truth on the other. Through its rich amalgam of lyricism, reportage, kitsch, and symbolism, "The Miracle Game" evokes nothing less than the fullness of history itself. It is a uniquely rewarding novel, a joyously intelligent creation of a m odern master.

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