by Simon Mawer
Simon Mawer, the author of Prague Spring, is a very distinguished British writer with an impressive body of work behind him. His novels include The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, its sequel, Tightrope, as well as the magnificent Glass Room, a story that chronicles the lives of several inhabitants of a renowned modernist house on the outskirts of Brno, in the Czech Republic. By means of this device, the author skillfully takes us through the turmoil of Central and Eastern Europe during the 20th century – without sacrificing depth of characterization. A fascinating and profoundly moving book. .
Because of this impressive body of work, I was eagerly looking forward to this latest book from Simon Mawer, in part because in it he has returned to the Czech Republic once again for his material, and also in part because I’m currently living in Prague and working on a crime/espionage novel of my own.
Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed with much of the book and found it a very slow read for the first 60% of the book (on my kindle). There are many disquisitions and forays into modern Czech history – which might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with this part of the world. Likewise, there are many descriptions of Prague’s main historical and cultural sites – again, of interest to a new visitor to the city. However, unlike The Glass Room, which was a tour de force of narrative control and characterization, in Prague Spring such devices only slowed down the narrative to a snail’s pace.
As with The Glass Room, Prague Spring is structured around two couples of differing nationalities. The first is a pair of young, slightly callow, British university students, hitchhiking through Europe – who, through a flip of a coin,, find themselves in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Russian invasion of 1968. A great deal of time is devoted right at the start to unraveling the romantic travails of this young couple – only to see them almost entirely disappear from the latter half of the story – as if the author had lost interest. The second couple, a British embassy attache and his strong-spirited Czech woman partner, daughter of a renowned Czech dissident, are a bit more interesting. Yet even here it takes a long while before we get the point of including them.
To be brief, the older couple, returning to Prague from a trip to Munich, pick up the younger British couple hitchhiking on their way to Prague, and offer to put the young couple up in the Czech woman’s flat for a few days. They subsequently introduce them to the marvelous world of Czech classical music and several of its most famous musicians. This occurs around the 60% mark (again, on my kindle) and this is where the book really picks up interest. Prague – and the whole of Czechoslovakia – are enjoying a heady period of freedom, because the tolerant government of Alexander Dubcek had relaxed a number of the stringent controls introduced and imposed on the population by the 1948 Communist putsch. 20 years of Stalinist style oppression were suddenly transcended and the future looked bright. People went wild with this new found freedom, people felt they could now speak their minds without fear of recrimination or being reported on by their neighbors. How could Dubcek and the rest of his fellow citizens not see what was coming – the inevitable arrival of Russian tanks?
At the 70% mark in the book, the Russian tanks arrive and the rest of the book is characterized by Mawler’s customary narrative control. The story is tense, dramatic, suspense-filled and gripping. Finally, we the readers are rewarded for our investment in the previous 70% of the novel. We even understand the purpose of the two couples, young and middle aged, British and Czech. Apart from Russian tanks in Vaclav Namesti (Saint Wenceslaus Square) and nervous, trigger-happy Russian troops between Prague and the German and Polish borders, two Russian musicians, one a renowned dissident, seek asylum with the British attache, adding much to the complications and dramatic tension of the story.
The book concludes with a very dramatic finish – which I found deeply satisfying – to the point that I breathed a sigh of relief at seeing Mawler back in form. However, one aspect was troubling. One of the principal characters is left hanging in the narrative, fate unknown – except there is no clear narrative reason for this uncertainty. I found that peculiar. If the individual had been killed or ‘disappeard’ into the Russian gulag, it would have made perfect sense. But no, we are not given any clear explanation of this individual’s fate nor any clear reason for the silence.
(One final parenthesis: As someone who has lived in Prague now for almost twenty years (on and off), it was a refreshing shock to me to be reminded that less than 30 years ago, there were watchtowers with armed guards and barbed wire on the Czech borders with Germany and Poland – whereas today, one can drive straight through.)