Life through Czech, Chinese eyes

April 21, 1991|By Myron Beckenstein

For a small country, Czechoslovakia has produced a lot o world-class writers: Franz Kafka, Jaroslav Hasek, Karel Capek. And you can add Josef Skvorecky.

"The Miracle Game" (Knopf; 436 pages; $22.95) is and isn't Mr. Skvorecky's latest. It is the latest published in English, but was written 19 years ago. Which means it was written five years before his related "The Engineer of Human Souls," but published seven years after it in English.

For English-language readers, then, "The Miracle Game" fills in the blank spots in "Human Souls," though as far as the author was concerned "Human Souls" was intended to expand on "The Miracle Game."

Both concern Danny Smirecky, from his growing up during World War II until after he emigrated to Canada (as Mr. Skvorecky did) a decade ago.

"The Miracle Game" concentrates on two periods, just after the Communist takeover in 1948 and around the time of the squelched Prague Spring of 1968. The stress in the title goes on the word "miracle," not on "game." It is not referring to a miraculous game but the activities relating to a miracle.

The miracle may or may not have occurred in a small Czech town in 1949 while Smirecky was teaching at a girl's high school. The locals who saw it said it had occurred. The government produced confessions and a film to show that it hadn't. Twenty years later, Smirecky still is trying to find out the truth.

But the book is and it isn't about the miracle. It is and it isn't about the Soviet invasion. It is and it isn't about communism. What it definitely is about is Danny and his worlds.

In 1948 he was libidinous, but impaired, and was let loose at a girl's high school with some funny consequences that run the length of the book, given Mr. Skvorecky's Ping-Pong style of narration. By 1968 he had become a writer-playwright whose future, and present, was limited by a regime that prized loyalty more than talent.

"The Miracle Game" is both one long story and hundreds of little stories that make the 436 pages manageable. Mr. Skvorecky has a wonderful, readable command of situations, characters and language and it is hard to imagine how the writing could be better in Czech than in Paul Wilson's translation.

Typical is his description of the Soviet invasion: "It was scarcely 4 in the morning, but a mob of people was already storming into the streets: dishevelled women in nightgowns, weeping; unshaven men shouting vulgar but appropriate insults; young men in colorful shirts holding up clenched fists, not in the fashionable greeting of those days, but in a gesture essentially older and more of the people."

Mark Salzman's novel "The Laughing Sutra" (Random House; 263 pages; $18.95) offers a look at both China and the United States as two Chinese slip out of their country and make it over here to retrieve a missing Buddhist document -- that of the title.

Hsun-ching makes the trip out of loyalty to the man who raised him, who wants the manuscript to complete his studies but who is too frail to make the travel. He is accompanied by Colonel Sun, a robust 2,700-year-old warrior.

Between the tales of Hsun-ching's growing up amid the turmoil of modern China (the story seems to take place in 1979, but there is some confusion about that) and the two men's reaction )) to the outside worlds of first Hong Kong and then the United States, there is ample room for quick jabs and feints at life in all three societies.

Mr. Salzman handles this with a light touch. The book never gets boring, even if it doesn't make you double over with laughter.

One typical sample, on our hero in America: "Hsun-ching was amazed that anyone could feel so passionately about what he perceived to be subtle differences in lifestyle. To go to the library or watch television, to be bored or excited. He didn't think it mattered much as long as you had a choice -- that was the luxury he dreamed about."

Mr. Salzman is a late-20s writer-actor who, the publisher points out, has been profiled in a liquor ad. Mr. Skvorecky teaches English at the University of Toronto and writes mystery stories nowadays.

Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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