When Eve Was Naked
Stories of a Life's Journey
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($25)
by Tricia Cornell
A memoir would seem almost superfluous for a writer like Josef Skvorecky. Approaching 70, with nearly 20 books behind him, the Czech dissident and émigré publisher has been telling the story of his life through his characters for more than four decades. Intriguingly, however, he has collected two dozen of these stories - all of them previously published, though many of them appearing for the first time in English - into When Eve Was Naked: Stories of a Life's Journey. Even with a handful of different narrators, the stories interlock to tell of a remarkable life.
These are the stories of Danny Smiricky (Skvorecky's long-time alter ego and the hero of his novels The Miracle Game and The Engineer of Human Souls) and Josef and Prema from the town of K. or Kostelec or Nachod (Skvorecky's real home town). But together they tell the story of Czechoslovakia, of all of Eastern Europe, and of a generation that grew up in that scary, hopeful, uncertain period between the two world wars.
The stories begin, as they should, in innocence. A little boy refuses to learn how to read because he loves the sound of his mother's voice telling him bedtime stories. And he believes his mother when she tells him that all liars are betrayed by their tell-tale soft noses. But even eight-year-old Danny is not entirely shielded from politics. In the title story, he shares an Italian seaside resort with a cohort of priggish Hitler Youth. At that age, however, he isn't paying attention to them: he's distracted by the pigtails and tiny ankles of a girl named Eve.
As Danny grows up, political concerns deepen. His German teacher is Jewish. His doctor, his neighbors and a sympathetic girl at school are Jewish. While Skvorecky and his main characters are Catholics, it's clear that they, like all of Prague, Eastern Europe, and the rest of the world, struggle with a "Jewish question" of their own. How could they fail to notice the yellow stars, the disappearing neighbors, the packed trains headed north and west, and eventually the individual stragglers back from Terezin? But then again, how could teenagers not be distracted, like Danny and Skvorecky, by jazz music, American zoot-suiters and the flip of a girl's skirt?
Skvorecky escaped Czechoslovakia in 1969, after the Soviet tanks rolled in to put an end to the Prague Spring and to show definitively that "Communism with a human face" was not to be. But the story of escape he chooses to publish here takes place during the first Soviet invasion, in 1948, when Skvorecky would have been 24. In "Spectator on a February Night," young Josef and his Hollywood-worshipping gablik buddies (fans and imitators of Clark Gable) pack stylish suits into valises and drive across the border in a two-seater Packard. Perhaps that's the way Skvorecky wishes he had emigrated, rather than waiting out two decades of oppression.
Eventually Skvorecky makes it to Canada, teaching at a small college in Toronto, and he brings his alter egos along with him. A little boy talks with his mom in "our language" and an émigré professor tries to fathom his students' North American sexual mores.
Skvorecky's pace is so measured, his details so meticulous, that he is almost a tease (not surprisingly, he has also written a handful of murder mysteries). But together those details-remembered or invented-make When Eve Was Naked the most honest kind of memoir: one that is not ashamed to be as much fiction as fact.