Josef Skvorecky’s short story panta rei explores how political changes affect the individual person by examining the transformation of Mrs. Zkoumal – who is usually referred to as Madam Editor – from a convinced fascist to an active communist, because she loses her job. It takes place in Czechoslovakia in the period that frames World War II. The narrator documents this transition of Madam Editor, as he describes various meetings with her. Madam Editor’s verbal responses to her changing political environment form the essence of the story, which causes the other elements of the story to have no other purpose than to stage the setting.
Skvorecky establishes a reoccurring pattern to equip his story with a simple linear structure. Each episode begins with an elaboration of the current situation of the narrator (“After they took Mother to the Asylum, Grandpa had a stroke and they kicked us out of the house”[i]) or a historical event like “Conservative leader Kramar[‘s]” death[ii]. While it helps the reader’s orientation, this approach has the side-effect of a monotonous-sounding, descriptive narrative. Many events are described with a rather blunt objectivity, as shown by phrases like “They threw Papa Nedochodil out of the parliament and Madam Editor off the paper”[iii]. Skvorecky does this to efficiently emphasize on Madam Editor’s opinion on Bolshevism. The short setting changes are easy to read and draw attention to comments ranging from “All of them are guilty!”[iv] to using the typically communist word “Comrade”[v].
I would recommend this story, because it shows that it is possible for a person to change completely. It also has a satisfyingly uniform structure and an interesting plot-twist at the end.
[i] Josef Skvorecky, “panta rei” in Short Fiction: An Anthology (2nd edition), ed. Mark Levene and Rosemary Sullivan (Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 2015): 377. [ii] Ibid: 376. [iii] Ibid: 379. [iv] Ibid: 376. [v] Ibid: 380.