THE MIRACLE GAME By Josef Skvorecky Knopf. 436 pp. $22.95
THERE IS now something slightly disconcerting about reading a good deal of contemporary Eastern European fiction. Like the modern spy novel, that genre which the end of the Cold War rendered out of date at a stroke, much of the literature produced by dissidents in Czechoslovakia, Poland and the other satellite countries also has a slightly musty feel to it. Whatever terrors the post-1989 world holds, it is safe to say that the gray totalitarian world that oppositional writers in the East chronicled so brilliantly is gone forever. That is not only a good thing for the peoples of the countries involved, but probably for the writers as well. For there was always something extra-literary about the reputation they enjoyed in the United States. We paid attention to their work because we admired the actual books in question but also because they served as reports from the other side and because the life of the writer "there" seemed so very different from the life of the writer "here."
Of course, there were exceptions. The novels of Milan Kundera, the stories of Danilo Kis, the poems of Zbigniew Herbert, these were works of genius by writers who would have mattered to us whatever their nationality. In a quieter way, Josef Skvorecky belongs to this distinguished company as well. In novels like The Engineer of Human Souls and The Bass Saxophone and now in his new book, The Miracle Game, he has managed to combine manic narrative energy and an unerring eye for the absurd with a lyricism that is as profound as any to be encountered in the work of a contemporary novelist. He may well also be the funniest serious writer this side of Philip Roth, no small accomplishment.
Like most of Skvorecky's books, The Miracle Game can be read on a number of levels. It begins in the grim early days of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, continues through the heady days of the liberal Prague Spring of 1968, and concludes in the stifling atmosphere of the renewed orthodoxy the Soviets imposed after their crackdown. But as Skvorecky is at pains to point out, the repression itself is doomed. In this epic sweep, The Miracle Game shows what it has been like for ironic, sophisticated people to live in that least ironic of locales, the Soviet empire. Skvorecky has thus written a summary of his times, an emotional history, seen through the eyes of one very imperfect narrator, of his country's ruinous 41 years as a communist state. As the book ends, chronologically long before 1989 and Havel's Velvet Revolution, the game is clearly over.
To be sure, politics is only one of Skvorecky's concerns. Indeed, the political set-piece at the heart of the book is as much a pretext for Skvorecky's wild and idiosyncratic way of looking at the world as it is derived from any more respectable impulse. That is all to the good. Respectable impulses are not the writer's ideal muse. Fortunately, Skvorecky takes his hero, Danny Smiricky, on a wild ride in the book, and Danny's escapades are as central to its architecture as the mystery at the novel's core.
Danny is a self-described "misguided counter-revolutionary of minor importance, re-educable, the author of librettos for musical comedies, of detective novels and comedy films, fearing God less than he feared the world, a skeptic." In 1948, Danny, stricken at that particular moment with a bad case of gonorrhea, is a young teacher in a girl's school in the provincial town of Hronov. He spends his time lusting after the nymphets his medical situation prevents him from pursuing and teaching the new communist syllabus to which, though he is scarcely a political person, he is utterly indifferent. In the midst of this light comedy, something strange happens. The local priest insists that he has witnessed a miracle, an assertion that is immediately denied by the local communist authorities. This too has the aspect of a comedy but, as always, Skvorecky never loses sight of the skull beneath the skin. The priest is arrested and tortured to death by the police.
Twenty years later, in 1968, as Czechoslovakia stands on the brink of accomplishing a real miracle, the creation of a humane communism, the case is reopened. Reluctantly, Danny is drawn in and the bulk of the story concerns his attempt to discover whether the purported miracle was actually the supernatural event the priest had described, a set-up by newly installed communist authorities eager to discredit the church, or just a prank, albeit one with tragic consequences. In the end, Danny both solves the riddle and lets the mystery stand. "Every idea brought to fruition is awful," he reflects somberly, even a miracle.
This is knowledge worth having, particularly at a moment when the good news from Prague has made too many people lose their skepticism. Perhaps it takes a writer like Skvorecky, and a hero like Danny Smiricky, who is in the best tradition of the Good Soldier Schweik, to remind us that, as Danny reflects at the close of the book, "sometimes, perhaps, a solution beckons enticingly, but it always turns out to be far-fetched and improbable. Beautiful as it may seem, it only works in literature." The Miracle Game is a wise book, and a beautiful one as well, that deserves all the plaudits it will doubtless receive, even in the market economy of literature that Eastern European writers must now confront in the new world they are entering. David Rieff is the author of "Going to Miami" and of a forthcoming book on Los Angeles.