Josef Skvorecky, the great Czech emigre who found a welcoming home in Toronto, remains perhaps the most engaging and least known of East European writers. Unlike his contemporaries Kundera and Konrad, Skvorecky's writing is always accessible. Like those others, he draws extensively on his own often too-absurd-to-be-true experiences navigativng first life under German occupation and then, until 1969, under the Communists. Like Konrad, he also draws from his diverse work experience -- tank driver, editor, writer, professor, saxophone player -- when creating his characters.
His best known works -- including "The Engineer of Human Souls" and "The Miracle Game" -- are extraordinary depictions of life under Communism and its lasting impact. Both feature Skvorecky's doppelganger, Danny Smircky, the oft-lovesick writer who loves jazz, along with a rich cast of characters dividing their time between Prague and the countryside.
In "Miss Silver's Past" Karel stands in for Danny, and the rest of his familar characters take a holiday. Instead, we are in Prague in the early sixties, before the 20th Soviet Party Congress, a time when the first signs of the ensuing spring first appeared. Though still in his 20s, Karel, an editor at a state publishing house, has watched his soul slowly wither, taking his poet's skill with it. Adroit at surviving in the intensely bureaucratic and constantly shifting political landscape of the office, Karel has no idea where he is going, or what he wants out of life.
That is until he meets Lenka Silver, a young, intensely beautiful woman with a deep secret.
So begins a novel that combines farce and mystery, yet rests on something far sadder and more profound. Through it, Karel is at times engaging, exasperating, and heartbreaking. This novel combines Skvorecky's usual themes (love, loneliness, longing, the idiocy of totalitarian regimes) and introduces an absorbing, fast-moving plot involving a murder, a provocative unpublished novelist, a dog show, and, of course, a summer spent driving a tank.
At its heart, "Miss Silver's Past" is much more than a mystery novel, for it rests on the not-too-distant Czech past of Nazi occupation and Communist repression, and the tragedy of the 20th century's conflagration leaves Skvorecky's characters deeply scarred, none more so than Miss Silver herself.
Outside of Riga there is a large memorial to the victims of the Nazi concentration camp that once stood there. Above the entrace, on a massive granite slab, read the words, "Beyond this wall the ground moans." Underneath Skvorecky's mystery lies the anguish of both the dead and the living.