Czech-Canadian writer Josef Skvorecky dies

Josef Skvorecky, a Czech dissident writer who spent most of his life in exile in Canada, has died. He was 87.

Won Governor General's Literary Award for The Engineer of Human Souls

Josef Skvorecky, left, who was a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto's Department of English, is seen in 1997 congratulating then-Czech Republic Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, right. (Reuters)

Josef Skvorecky, a Czech dissident writer who spent most of his life in exile in Canada, has died. He was 87.

He died Tuesday in a Toronto hospital after battling cancer.

Skvorecky won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 1984 for The Engineer of Human Souls, a comic novel about the plight of a Czech dissident writer who is trying to make a new life in Canada. His other works, all translated into English, include The Republic of Whores, The Bride of Texas, Dvorak in Love and The Swell Season.

Skvorecky was an influential publisher of banned books through his company 68 Publishers, which he formed in Toronto in 1971 after fleeing the Soviet invasion that crushed the 1968 reform movement dubbed the Prague Spring.

In Canada, he published the works of Czech and Slovak writers, including Vaclav Havel — the writer-turned-political leader who died in December — and Milan Kundera, considered one of the former Czechoslovakia’s most important writers.

Studied medicine, philosophy

Born Sept. 27, 1924 in Nachod, Czechoslovakia, Skvorecky was forced to work in a German aircraft factory during the Second World War. He went to university in Prague after the war, initially studying medicine, but switching to liberal arts, earning a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1951.

Skvorecky translated works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett into Czech in the 1950s. His early novels, The End of the Nylon Age and The Cowards, were banned by the Communist regime. The Cowards, a 1958 book that took an unorthodox look at the events of May 1945 when Czechoslovakia was liberated from the Nazis, circulated underground and was influential in dissident circles.

His essays and short stories advanced democratic ideals, and Skvorecky was forced to flee his homeland in 1968 after Soviet tanks moved into Prague to stifle the pro-democracy movement.

Many of his novels and stories dealt with totalitarianism and repression, but he also wrote about the immigrant experience, often with humour.

He also wrote four detective novels: The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka, Sins for Father Knox, The End of Lieutenant Boruvka and The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka. He adapted some of his works for TV, including Sins for Father Knox, The Swell Season and Murders for Luck.

From 1973-1990, he hosted a monthly radio series on writing and literature on Voice of America. He also served as an English professor at the University of Toronto from 1971 until his retirement in 1990.

Skvorecky was honoured with the Order of the White Lion by Czech president Havel in 1990 and with the Order of Canada in 1992.

Skvorecky is survived by his wife, Zdena Salivarova, a writer, actress and co-founder of 68 Publishers.