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Skvorecky and Havel: Engineers of human freedom

Czech-Canadian novelist Josef Skvorecky, shown in 2004, passed away on Monday. He was 87.

Czech exile Josef Skvorecky loved the freedom he had as a writer in Canada, never took it for granted and used it to great gain for the world.

Mr. Skvorecky, who died on Tuesday at 87, and Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who died last month, were central figures in the dissident literature that helped propel the downfall of Communism in the former Czechoslavakia and beyond.

Mr. Skvorecky's magnum opus was The Engineer of Human Souls, a phrase coined by Joseph Stalin to describe writers as instruments of the state, inspiring people to be what the state wanted them to be. Mr. Skvorecky, in his novel, gave the world the wise-cracking, jazz-loving, women-chasing Danny Smiricky – a writer, but no engineer. He was the rebellious answer to Stalin's totalitarian dream.

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Suppressed in his native Czechoslovakia, Mr. Skvorecky (pronounced Shkvor-et-ski) left in 1969 and used the freedom he had as a citizen of Canada to write a shelf-full of books. He also, with his wife, Zdena Salivarova, started 68 Publishers in Toronto in 1971, and they published Mr. Havel, Milan Kundera and himself in their native Czech, work that was smuggled into Czechoslovakia and spearheaded a thriving underground literature.

With touching sincerity, he expressed his gratitude to Canada for freedom. "There is beauty everywhere on earth, but there is more beauty in those places where one feels that sense of ease which comes from no longer having to put off one's dreams."

Mr. Skvorecky and Mr. Havel were giants and heroes – but very human ones. Mr. Skvorecky was a grown-up version of Smiricky, political by necessity, because to be a writer under totalitarianism, or in exile from it, meant an obligation to speak as a witness. Mr. Havel, an absurdist playwright and eloquent essayist who spent years in jail under a Soviet-backed Communist regime, spoke about the need to "live within the truth" as an "elementary starting point" for opposing totalitarianism. Dissent, he wrote, was in the "service of truth, the truthful life, and the attempt to make for the genuine aims of life." Mr. Havel served truth when to do so was a dangerous occupation, while the Canadian Mr. Skvorecky was creating a lasting testament to the genuine aims of life.

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