At the University of the Underdog that is Czech history, the chief lesson taught is ironic fatalism, which is what Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game comes steeped in. Jazz musician, detective writer (the Lieutenant Boruvka series), and prolific author of nondetective novels (Dvorak in Love, The Engineer of Human Souls, etc.), Skvorecky had clearly learned the lesson well by the time he took refuge in Toronto after the 1968 Soviet invasion wrecked the liberal hopes of the Prague Spring.
Yet this sprawling novel is bawdy and buoyant as often as it’s bleak. One of its premises is that if you can survive something, you can eventually discover a way to consider it funny. Another is that the important things in life are ambiguous, and it’s probably just as well to leave them that way: ”Life is a whodunnit and the perpetrator is truth. It’s a bad whodunnit. The perpetrator always gets away.”
The plot of The Miracle Game is a whodunit wrapped around an ambiguous miracle. In 1949, just after the Communists have taken over, a statue of St. Joseph in a small village church moves, as if giving a sign to the congregation, which proclaims a miracle. The Stalinist regime denounces the phenomenon as a fraud and goes to the trouble of staging several clumsy, contradictory ”explanations” before torturing the parish priest and beating him to death.
Our hero, Danny Smiricky, Skvorecky’s alter ego last seen in The Engineer of Human Souls, isn’t much interested in the miracle, even though he was asleep in the church when it happened. He is more concerned with his newly diagnosed case of gonorrhea, which prevents him from succumbing to the temptations offered by his pupils in the local girls’ school. He persists in his skepticism, but the elusive miracle keeps following him wherever he goes. Clues and portents are placed just where he is most likely to trip over them. The miracle may have been only a cynical joke, but then ”God is a cynic, too,” and irony works in mysterious ways. Jokes, miracles, and novels have in common the principle of surprise.
The plot, loosely flung back and forth between 1949 and 1968, is festooned with anecdotes — some darkly hilarious, some merely dark, and all, I would guess, true. The reader won’t have much trouble penetrating the disguises of the more august characters. There are dry vignettes of ”the world-famous playwright,” i.e. Vaclav Havel. American revolutionaries in general get a thrashing. The most caustic episode in this profoundly antipolitical book depicts a band of robotic American Maoists on a campus resembling Berkeley in 1968. Meanwhile, drink, sex, and religion thicken the stubbornly comic plot. The Miracle Game is an encyclopedia of political depravity and delusion which suggests that deeper human impulses, in their eternal ambiguity, will always have the last laugh.