Dissident writer and publisher Josef Skvorecky, 87, dies of cancer

January 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Dissident Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who came to Canada to escape the 1968 Soviet invasion in his home country, has died from cancer. He was eighty-seven years old.

Despite winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1984 novel The Engineer of Human Souls, Skvorecky was not as well-known in his adopted country as he (arguably) deserved to be. Fans of the Glen Hansard/Marketa Irglova band The Swell Season might be surprised to discover that duo took their name from the title of one of Skvorecky’s novels.

In addition to his own writing, Skvorecky was the founder, along with his wife, Zdena Salivarova, of 68 Publishers, a Toronto-based house dedicated to publishing the work of Czech and Slovak writers who had been banned in their own countries. (The name of the house was a reference to the Prague Spring of 1968.) Among the writers whose work Skvorecky published were Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who himself died just over two weeks ago.

From the Toronto Star:

In 1990, Josef and his wife were awarded the Czech Republic’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Lion, by Havel.

The independence of the Czech Republic allowed writers to be published freely in that country, sparking a surge in new publishing houses. Four years later, the Skvoreckys shut down 68 Publishers after having published at least 200 books, including novels, poetry and books on history, philosophy and autobiographies.

In a tribute to the couple’s work prior to the country’s independence, Havel wrote: “By publishing in our own language books that cannot be published in our motherland, you are in fact helping to preserve the spiritual identity and continuity of our nation. The long term effect of your work, which is simultaneously humble, but at the same time absolutely essential for our nation’s future, is almost impossible to fully appreciate.”

The National Post quotes novelist Ivan Klima as saying, “It was nice that the books were published in Czech, beautifully done, then smuggled here for thousands of people to read.” Skvorecky, whose own early novels were banned in his home country, was named to the Order of Canada in 1992.

In addition to his novels, Skvorecky also published poetry, autobiography, and non-fiction on jazz and cinema. His novel The Republic of Whores was adapted for the screen (as The Tank Battalion), and three other works – Sins for Father Knox, The Swell Season, and Murders for Luck – were adapted for television.

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