By Roberta Silman
This consistently interesting novel adds an unforgettable dimension to an historical event about which we thought we knew all there was to know.
Prague Spring by Simon Mawer. Other Press, 393 pages, $17.95.
For anyone who has visited Prague, walked across the famous Charles Bridge and stood in Wenceslas Square while a tour guide has tried to describe the chaotic history of the Czech Republic since World War II, this compelling novel by Simon Mawer will not only put the shameful events of 1968 into perspective, but will also reveal what it is about the Czech personality and history that is so intriguing and also so haunting. For Mawer is a seasoned writer of historical spy fiction with an uncanny ability to evoke the fear and hope that existed for a short time in Czechoslovakia during that fateful year of 1968, just a little more than fifty years ago. And to present with unusual authenticity the horror of life where freedom and democratic ideals are too fragile to survive. It will take another generation for the Czech Republic to be created, for the Prague Spring to evolve into The Velvet Revolution. But, as this book illustrates, the path wasn’t easy, and people were not only disillusioned but tainted and betrayed and sometimes tortured and killed.
The novel begins slowly as two Oxford students set out on a trip across Europe in what seems a story of a road trip troubled only by class differences and sexual uncertainties. But when the point of view shifts to a young British diplomat named Sam Wareham in Prague, we realize we are in a bigger story set against the turbulent landscape that was known as Alexander Dubcek’s short-lived and failed policy of “socialism with a human face.” When Sam meets and falls in love with a Czech student named Lenka, who is as mysterious as she is seductive, I began to feel the same urgency that we all felt when we watched that unforgettable 2006 movie, The Lives of Others about the Stasi in East Germany.
In his creation of Lenka and her mother and the man who became her mother’s protector, Mawer plunges us into a world where nothing can be verified, where everyone is suspect, and where the most egregious events and relationships are simply accepted as “reality” because there is nothing that can be done to change them. And where the values of a young Britisher like Sam are challenged beyond all imagining in trying to unpack what is really happening. And also where the back stories about real people, like Masaryk and Milada Horáková, give even more resonance to Mawer’s deftly blended narrative.
At first I found myself somewhat impatient with Ellie and James, but after a while, during the random and coincidental twists and turns they encounter as they wander through Europe, I realized that Mawer is giving us this parallel thread to show us freedom and chutzpah and choice — two young kids doing exactly what they want, flipping a coin to see where they will go next, meeting each encounter with the moxie that is part of their privileged lives. Crossing borders, an exercise that begins innocently enough, but will change as they get further and further into Central Europe. Here they are at the first one:
Outside on deck the air is cold. It has a different quality from the air they left behind at Dover, a strange hint of foreign, a sense that they are on the edge of a continent that stretches to the Mediterranean, to the Urals, to Finisterre. No longer marooned on an island, encompassed by an island’s limitations. Here, anything is possible.
Slowly, inexorably, the border crossings become more desolate, more difficult, and creepy, until they land in Prague and their story merges with that of Sam and Lenka. And that is when we begin to understand that a relationship between a young Britisher and a Czech student whose Jewish father was killed by the Communists and whose Jewish grandparents were probably killed in one of the concentration camps is a narrative far more consequential than the adventures of this innocent English couple.
For Sam has the curiosity of a real intellectual, of someone who cannot help but probe beneath the surface of things — as not all his colleagues allow themselves to do — and Lenka, as young as she is, has a history and a world weariness unique to citizens of countries that have suffered under Fascism or Stalin’s Communism, a weariness that we who were brought up in a democracy can never fully understand. And that love cannot really understand. At one point Sam “thought of what he didn’t know about Lenka, which was almost everything. And then wondered how much you need to know about someone before you fall in love. Probably, he supposed, almost nothing. What did Romeo know of Juliet? Just enough to get both of them killed in the most idiotic way imaginable.” This gives you a taste of Mawer’s method and why this consistently interesting novel adds a resonate dimension to an historical event about which we thought we knew all there was to know.
The violence that marks the end to the Prague Spring that took place in Wenceslas Square is horrific and chilling, and totally believable. Here is Lenka when she sees Ellie and James appear in the midst of the chaos.
She’s distracted, as though they are unexpected mourners appearing at a family funeral, irrelevant to the real drama. “You must go,” she tells them. “This is no place for you. People are killed.”
“We want to show solidarity,” Ellie replied, and suddenly Lenka is angry, as though the wrong thing has been said at a funeral, the wrong friendship mentioned, a previous relationship referred to, a hidden embarrassment exposed to the explicit light of day.
“Just go! This is not a student protest. Not banners outside the American embassy in London. Not even tear gas and throwing stones in Paris. This is rape and you must not be here. It is disgusting to watch. So now go. Go to your embassy and ask for safety. Go and speak with Sam Wareham and tell him Lenka sent you. But go!”
Lenka saves them but does not escape herself; it is as if her fate has been written long before the events of this book, because she lies “between the borderline between the living and the neither dead, neither one thing nor the other, like the country itself, neither free nor captive.” And Sam’s anguish, yet also the resignation that will allow him to survive whatever the outcome:
One day, he thought, all this will be past. It will be consigned to memory, twisted into different shapes, given that patina of age that will hide most of the pain. Perhaps it will be taken out once in a while and wiped free of the dust of forgetting, so that for a few minutes it may shine bright again, but it will be past, whatever happens.
Although Prague Spring ends on a lighter note — Ellie and James flipping another coin — I must confess that reading it once a few months ago and then re-reading it to write this review has given me pause. In that short time, our own democracy seems to be becoming more frayed and thus more fragile, and for those who are so convinced that we are safe from the onslaughts that come with autocracy and Fascism, they would do well to read this book. Here is an unsettling reminder of how fast things can change, both for the better and the worse. And how, if we have ideals, we must act to preserve them.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.