Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Weasels Ripped My Flesh: Josef Skvorecky's Headed for the Blues (1997)

Last winter when author Josef Skvorecky passed away, we didn't have room to post a proper obituary in Critics at Large. So I thought I'd take the opportunity today to perhaps address something of what his life meant to me through one of his later efforts, Headed for the Blues (1997). Headed for the Blues is actually divided into two books. Beginning with the memoir of the title, and written by the author while looking back at his homeland from his new one in Canada; it is followed by "The Tenor Saxophonist's Story," which consists of 10 short stories written between 1954 and 1956 while Skvorecky was still in Prague. The purpose here, no doubt, is to provide contrasting attitudes about the past – the place and people he left behind – through stories that capture all the reasons why he did depart.

Headed for the Blues examines why those reasons are never cut and dry. What Skvorecky demonstrates, with a cool irony and a sardonic grin, is that just because you leave the traumas of home behind, it doesn't mean that they still can't haunt you. During the opening few pages, Skvorecky confronts us with names, places and distant memories. Yet the story's not told in the chronological sequencing of a conventional remembrance. His thoughts pour out as if they'd been first blended in a Cuisinart. The narrative shifts back and forth through time, too, with sentences that run on as if the author wasn't sure he'd find enough breath to get the words out.

The urgency to speak – to find clarity or certainty – is deliberate, and the book's style, with its jazzy bounce and swing, carries the plot. While it takes a little time to get your bearings (because the rush of words leave you feeling the sensation of stemming a flood), the urgency has a point because this memoir from a Czech exile is an attempt to validate a life during a time of Stalinist repression. It's about how memories – and time itself – can lose its linear shape and meaning in a totalitarian society; a society where it becomes next to impossible to consolidate those memories when the government's role is to deny you the experience of them. Headed for the Blues also pulls the rug out from under all our efforts to find our roots because the story is infused with a homesickness borne out of unresolved efforts to define a home. To paraphrase blues singer Percy Mayfield, it's about being a stranger in your own hometown.

The book opens in 1969, with Skvorecky, a university professor in Toronto, looking back to the grim shadow of 1948 when the communist putsch deployed a Stalinist regime in Czechoslovakia. The memoir touches many moments (both tender and tragic) and issues (both political and personal), but the two threads that run through this reminiscence is Skvorecky's correspondence with his good friend Prema, who becomes an exile after broadcasting from a stolen transmitter; and later, Pavlas, a different kind of exile with "a mushy voice" and an obsequious agenda who meets him in Toronto. Prema travels the world from Algiers to Sicily, showing up in Australia, yet eventually coming home just to get booted out. For Skvorecky, Prema represents all the comforts of having a homeland, coupled with justifications for leaving it. Pavlas embodies the treachery that robs your homeland of its comforts, constantly reminding you that you never leave it behind.

Josef Skvorecky
The dark humour in Headed for the Blues (it suggests Kafka with a chuckle) uncovers the world of fizls, agents of the secret police ("rhymes with weasels"), and the "exhausted executioners," claimed by the government to be tired because of the volume of killing. Skvorecky demonstrates time and again that behind the boldly defined face of the communist revolutionary is actually the faceless bureaucrat who finds fulfillment in wiping out lives and identities. No wonder Skvorecky is compelled to write: "Anyone capable of the extravagance of words must tell everything he knows ... Truth will be forgotten, because perhaps it is the young, the happy ones ... who are entering an age when only the diligent fizls grow weary, the executioner is idle."

The short vignettes that make up "The Tenor Saxophonist's Story" function like parables about politics and morality. They also feature a familiar figure from Skvorecky's earlier work, his alter-ego Danny Smiricky, who appeared in Skvorecky's first novel, The Cowards (1958), The Swell Season (1975), as well as in The Engineer of Human Souls (1977) and The Republic of Whores (1969), the sax player who describes himself as "a champion of caution." In many ways, though, I like to think of him more like Ivan (Robin Williams), the innocent hero of Paul Mazursky's lovely and bittersweet Moscow on the Hudson (1984), another story about defection and homesickness. (Ivan also played the sax.) Danny is an observer who tries to behave decently in a system where betrayal and expedience have become the norm. In the story "Panta Rei," we watch through Danny's eyes the worst aspects of careerism, where one character changes political colours with the ease one uses to change shoes. In "Truths," political naivete is cleverly linked to the sexual version of the same innocence. And in "Little Mata Hari of Prague," the true nature of what is considered a classless society is horrifically revealed.

Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson
Headed for the Blues is a precise examination of the Stalinist horrors of the Czech past and a stirring remembrance of what Skvorecky left behind (and a good guess at what lay ahead). But considered today, the book truly gains in perspective. No doubt, like many of us, Skvorecky didn't anticipate the rapid fall of communism and the Velvet Revolution of Vaclav Haval. When I interviewed Skvorecky back in 1988 (included as one of the Talking Out of Turn interviews in Critics at Large), a year before that revolution, and asked him whether he trusted Gorbachev and glasnost, he said, "These liberal-left journalists are simply too trusting. They have no historical memory. Many people know that Gorbachev is in power, but they forgot that he made his career in the KGB. I'm not saying that this determines his future, but I would be more cautious. Exiles like myself know totalitarianism, and Canadians fortunately do not."

Skvorecky was, of course, wrong about Gorbachev's future, but his comments about the value and necessity of having a historical memory is precise. The cautionary tone of Headed for the Blues hints in its comic despair that things will never change. But because Josef Skvorecky, in his lifetime, cultivated that historical memory, a memory that struggles to uncover the complexity of truth, he made change more inevitable than he may at first realized.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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