Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Literary Trampoline: Two Murders in My Double Life by Josef Skvorecky


The world lost another good writer earlier this month when Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky slipped quietly into the afterlife.  Best known for The Engineer of Human Souls (a term Stalin used to describe novelists), Skvorecky often found himself in trouble with Communist authorities and had many of his works banned both before and after he left Czechoslovakia in 1969.  When he died on Jan. 3, he and his wife had lived in Toronto for more than 40 years.  He was 87 years old and he suffered from cancer.

I am not necessarily a student of Skvorecky's work--in fact, I've only read one of his books--but what I read I enjoyed.  When I learned of his death, I went back into my review archives and found my critique of his one novel which I'd read, Two Murders in My Double Life.  Interestingly, I make reference to Vaclav Havel in the review.  The former Czech president died less than three weeks earlier than Skvorecky.  As can be expected, the lives of Havel and the expatriate novelist often intertwined and in 1990, Havel awarded Skvorecky the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor in the Czech Republic.

Here is my review of Skvorecky's book, written shortly after Two Murders in My Double Life was released in the U.S. in 2001 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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Imagine Agatha Christie inviting Vaclav Havel over for tea.  Picture the two of them, the dame of mysteries and the Czech president, sitting down to a nice steaming mug of Earl Grey and discussing murder and politics.  Think of the wild swings the conversation would take.

That’s the kind of literary trampoline you’ll be bouncing on when you read Two Murders in My Double Life, by Josef Skvorecky (who, incidentally, dedicates his novel to Havel).  As the title implies, there are two murders in this bipolar, bicontinental novel.  There’s the killing in the tradition of Christie, P.D. James and Ellery Queen: a professor at quaint little Edenvale College in Toronto has been strangled in a traditional locked-room mystery (the biggest piece of evidence is a piece of chipped-off nail polish found in a file folder); the other murder is a larger, more intangible crime involving a McCarthy-like witch hunt in Prague—it is “a total crime,” as Skvorecky puts it in a brief introduction:
North America leads, by a wide margin, in the worldwide statistics of murder, but North Americans have never experienced total crime. In Europe and Asia, millions of people fell victim to it, many millions in large countries, but it is not only the body that is murdered by this mega-assassin, it is the soul: the character of the community called a nation. However, one can hardly write a murder mystery about the assassination of souls.

Though it's a slim book, this is a big-issues novel. The story is sharply divided between a traditional murder mystery and a political saga (the likes of which you might find if you tuned into National Public Radio on any given afternoon).  Two Murders in My Double Life is not for everybody; but for those who enjoy sipping this cup of tea, they’ll probably be captivated by what’s inside.

The writing is authentic enough to make you wonder how much of this is autobiographical.  I had never heard of Skvorecky before I picked up the novel, but his approach feels awfully close to the bone.  And, in fact, the photograph on the dustjacket is an old photo of the author and his wife: he’s seated on a rock on a hillside, she stands next to him, and both of them have their backs turned to the camera as they look out over the countryside below.  Curious and intriguing.

At the center of Two Murders in My Double Life is the Skvorecky figure, an unnamed professor at Edenvale whose colleague is strangled with a piece of string one night and whose wife is under investigation for a past Czech “crime.”  The novel flips back and forth between the two halves as the professor flashes back to how his wife was blacklisted for stray remarks she made about a friend of hers who was once involved with a Communist.  For those unfamiliar with European politics of the Cold War, the Czech portions can get a bit murky and difficult to follow, but Skvorecky has a tart, bracing style that keeps you reading all the way through.

The Toronto scenes, however, are a pure delight to read as the author has a great deal of fun at the expense of university politics and mystery writers.  At times, reading like a Lite Version of Kundera, Kafka or Camus, Two Murders in My Double Life spreads a veneer of wicked satire over every page—especially those set in North American academia.  This is a world where long debates rage over whether or not an instructor should leave his door open when a female student shows up for office hours or—more precisely—who is the faculty’s biggest and best adulterer.  There are no lack of catty cocktail parties in these pages.

There’s also no lack of sly humor, which mystery fans should quickly catch.  One character, a police detective, is named Dorothy Sayers; another is Raymond Hammett; and so on.  Skvorecky had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek while composing this, his first novel written in English.  His other works include The Cowards, The Engineer of Human Souls and Dvorak in Love.  No two ways about it, Skvorecky has a good grasp of our language—in these pages, it is alternately a light brush of the fingers and a hard slap across the face.

3 comments:

  1. I love that quote by Skvorecky you chose...I copied it down in my little notebook of phrases I like to meditate over. And for the most part, see the truth and gut-wrenching insight of it.

    But, maybe his unfamiliarity with America leads him to forget the total crime European North Americans enacted on indigenous "communities called a nation." Except for the institution of slavery, I can't think of a cultural phenomenon that is more aptly described as "the assassination of souls." It's certainly at the same level as the European and Asian "total crimes" to which he obliquely refers.

    But he's absolutely correct that most Americans haven't experienced it.

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    1. And that most Americans forget about it....

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  2. Thanks for your complete analysis.

    Elisabeth

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