Topicality, or anniversaries, can give writers real opportunities.
The events of August 1968 are the setting for Prague Spring, the new novel by Simon Mawer. He has written before about Czechoslovakia, as readers of The Glass Room will know, that telling and compelling history of a villa that is remarkably like the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. (See https://ninevoices.wordpress.com/2017/08/15/the-glass-room-revisited/.) He shows the same confidence and attention to detail here.
The novel focuses on two diverse couples whose lives become intertwined in Prague as the political tension mounts, as Warsaw Pact troops are massing on the borders. Two students decide to hitch-hike across Europe: wealthy, Home Counties Ellie (revelling in the role of revolutionary socialist – this is 1968, remember!) and poorer, Sheffield-born James. Their relationship shifts as they find their way across Europe, depending on the opportunities or the hazards that face them. Dubček and “socialism with a human face” have been much in the news, and the toss of a Deutschmark decides that they will go to Prague to see it rather than head south to Italy for the sun.
Meanwhile, at the British Embassy in Prague, Sam Wareham (a fluent Czech- and Russian-speaking First Secretary) has met beautiful Lenka Konečková. She is the daughter of a victim of the show trials in the 1950s, and is someone anxious to enjoy the new freedoms the Prague Spring has brought. With her Sam explores this new optimistic world in ways that might well have been closed to him if he was confined to his usual round of Embassy socials and official trade union visits.
The mixture of this exciting new freedom, and the threats gathering at the frontier, generates a tension that pervades the love lives of these characters and the people they meet and the places they go. We visit a chaotic pop concert given by a ramshackle American pot-smoking pop group the Ides of March, and at classical concerts we are transported by the music of Dvořák and Brahms. We attend an exuberant political meeting; just like the hitchhiking couple, we meet a wide range of folk on the road, we come across an influential Party member, and we see shadowy people in action at the Embassy. Musicians feature quite prominently – as well the Ides of March we meet a famed German cellist, a more famous Russian conductor and his young violinist lover. There is even a cameo appearance by the Moody Blues (as a way of evoking the late 1960s in the minds of those of us who were there, bringing in Nights in White Satin is a masterstroke). Dubček is seen briefly. We visit Café Slavia and are greeted by a shortish man in a leather jacket who we are told later is a playwright … There is a lot of sex (as, I recall, there was in The Glass Room).
Reader, I don’t think I’m really spoiling it if I tell you that the paths of these two couples cross and the Russians do invade. The sense of massive confusion throughout the city when that happens is well described. The Prague Spring is being brutally brought to an end and our protagonists find themselves in the midst of the horror and the chaos.
Simon Mawer has included in the text four short explanatory notes to give some background: on the suspicious death shortly after the Communist coup d’état in 1948 of the Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk; on the Communists’ murder in 1949 of the democrat Milada Horáková; on the Bavarian-Czechoslovak border; and on ‘Ghosts’ – Kafka, Hašek, the Castle itself, and the letter from five members of the Czechoslovak Presidium to Brezhnev asking him to intervene to save the country from counter-revolution.
In August 1968 I was staying with a German family in Bielefeld. I recall their fear that the Russians wouldn’t stop at the Czechoslovak border. Many readers will have their own memories of what it was actually like to be in Czechoslovakia as they unfolded: for those of us who don’t, Prague Spring is a novel that tries to capture that historic moment.
Published by Little, Brown ISBN 978-1-4087-1114-9
(This piece first appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of the British Czech & Slovak Review, the newsletter of the British Czech & Slovak Association – see http://www.bcsa.co.uk. To hear Simon Mawer talking about this book in a radio interview go to https://www.radio.cz/en/section/books/simon-mawers-prague-spring-a-complex-love-story-amid-the-drama-of-1968.)