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Water Works | RICHARD EDER

THE TENOR SAXOPHONIST'S STORY: A Novel in Ten Chapters. By Josef Skvorecky . Translated from the Czechby Caleb Crain, Peter Kussi, Kaca Polackova-Henley and Paul Wilson . The Ecco Press: 162 pp., $13

December 21, 1997|RICHARD EDER

Water, which chooses the easiest course by trickling downhill and through all available cracks, can heave pavement and shatter foundations. As reflected through its literary tradition, the Czech temperament in its finest moments has displayed water's easygoing and formidable qualities.

Schweik, the good-soldier protagonist of Jaroslav Hasek's celebrated satire, disrupted Austro-Hungarian military grandeur through a comic obliviousness. The Prague Spring of 1968, utterly unlike the other insurgencies of that year, had its expressive roots not in righteous denunciation but in homely irony.

There was, for example, the speech by Ludvik Vaculik, a dissident Communist, to the Writers' Congress the year before. No Paris-style battle cry of "Imagination to Power!" nor American-style "Off the pigs!," Vaculik's emblematic phrase, picturing a Communist victory ruined by power and repression, was utterly non-grandiloquent:

"We have taken the bull by the horns, and we are holding on, and yet something keeps butting us in the seat of the pants." The problem of power could be solved only by freedom, he said. Was this still possible within the system? "I don't know," was his answer, and it gathered force to become a Czech version of Zola's J'accuse.

Across town, Vaclav Havel mocked the answer. He was only 33 then and a long way from his successive ordeals of imprisonment and presidency of the republic. His own generation never did believe in Communism, Havel said, so why should it revere its elders' repentance, however witty and unpretentious? "When they knew everything, everybody else was wrong. Now that they don't know they think everyone doesn't know. They think their mistakes are better than other people's mistakes."

Despite their differences (these would disappear after the Soviet Army came in and temporarily crushed irony with iron), Vaculik and Havel were joined by national style. It is a style both unmistakable and difficult to define; in culinary terms, it would be a pastry that nourishes without enlarging you. It is satiric but oddly merciful. The knife descends without quite cutting, yet the same purpose is served. Its paradoxes are united by a fierce distrust of all certitudes, including the certitude of fierce distrust.

Even in the grimmest Stalinist 1950s, the style never died out, though it went underground. This is shown in a collection of early pieces by Josef Skvorecky, whose "The Engineer of Human Souls" and "The Bass Saxophone" later took their place with the works of Havel, Vaculik, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima, Pavel Kohout and others.

Unpublishable at the time, the pieces have been collected and issued by Ecco Press. Their effect is uneven. A flimsy unity is given by Smiricky, the narrator (who also appears in a later book), and a dubious decision to call it "a novel in ten chapters." It is no novel, but some of the pieces remain brilliantly effective to this day. Even the feebler ones are testimony to the voices of a decade's seeming silence.

Smiricky, who recounts his tales to a group of imaginary "ladies"--it is hard to imagine whom they represent, perhaps the future--is one such semi-silenced voice. He detests the ruling rigors and cliches of the 1950s, yet he accommodates himself. Playing the saxophone in a jazz band is his freedom. (After a period of prohibition, jazz came to be tolerated, at least in a mild, old-fashioned form.) His critical faculties remain, though, like an unexercised body, they have grown flabby.

Some of his tales are little more than papery vignettes about people making their way into, through or under the system. There are the perambulations of Polly and Arnost, whose comings-together and wanderings-off are no more than an amatory doodle, a low-grade sexual geometry.

There are the successive transformations of a woman who starts as a prewar conservative activist, switches to a liberal Catholic movement and ends up as a party busybody. There is the irresistible rise of Lizette, whose blue eyes and sizable bust allow her a brilliant career as a student, a member of international party delegations and finally a plum job as cultural attache in Rio de Janeiro.

These and several other vignettes are trivial; their satiric content too faint or too obvious to make up for their cartoonish character. A more comically poignant story recounts the hapless efforts of a musician to obtain an apartment. Seeking to amass the maximum number of priority points on the state housing list, he rejoices when he and his family are evicted from their squalid single room. This places him near the top; the top itself evades him, as others make a series of deals in a supposedly incorruptible system.

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