Way back in the early 1990s, just before Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the College at which I worked entertained three Czech secondary teachers for a month and I was given the pleasurable task of showing them round the country and taking them to various music and theatre events. Their English was perfect (I took them to an Oscar Wilde play and they laughed in all the right places – a lot of native English speakers don’t get Wilde’s humour) so we were able to have really interesting conversations about the different ways in which we had been brought up and educated. One evening we were talking over coffee in the foyer of Symphony Hall and the subject of the Prague Spring and its aftermath came up. “I remember that,” I said. “I remember I had just bought a rucksack made in Czechoslovakia and wondering if we would be getting any more imports from your country.” “Yes,” said one of our visitors. “I remember it too. I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing the Russian tanks rolling through our village”. There is remembering and remembering.
Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, memorialises the weeks immediately before the Russian invasion from several different points of view. The book opens in Oxford where two students, Ellie and James, having both been let down over holiday plans, join forces to hitchhike across Europe during that summer of 1968. Ellie, from a seriously middle-class background, has already been involved in student politics including the ‘riots’ in Paris the previous year. James is a northern working-class lad who is nowhere near as politically inclined. Making decisions pretty much on the toss of a coin, they bumble their way across Europe, ending up in a Prague heady from the new freedoms that the Czech people have been demanding for themselves.
Once in the capital they encounter both politically involved Czech citizens and Sam Wareham, a first secretary at the British Embassy who is observing developments from a professional and personal point of view. Professionally he ought to be maintaining a level of detachment, but personally he is involved with a young activist, Lenka Konecková, who isn’t the slightest bit backwards at coming forwards whenever she gets the opportunity of challenging those who are meant to be leading her country towards increased independence from Soviet interference. Through Lenka we learn something of the depredations that the Czech people have suffered over the two decades since the take-over by the Communist Party in 1948 and of the humiliations they have been forced to endure in order to forge any sort of life for themselves at all.
The reader meets Sam and Lenka long before the young British couple arrive in Prague, theirs is the second point of view we encounter. There is, however, a third commentator, what I would have to call ‘an intrusive narrator’ although I didn’t find him/her worryingly so. This is a voice that clearly comes from the future and knows what is about to happen to these people who are so desperately fighting for their independence. I did wonder at first if it was going to turn out to be one of the characters looking back with hindsight, but in fact it is more abstract than that. It is the voice of each one of us, inevitably reading this book knowing what is about to happen, experiencing the vitality of these young people while aware of what the outcome is going to be and powerless to anything to prevent it.
It is this sense of inevitability which drives the novel and the reader forward. There is no real suspense involved, because we know what brought that Prague Spring to an end. We worry about certain characters, but nothing the writer nor the reader can do will stop those Russian tanks rolling into Wenceslas Square. What it seems to me that Mawer is most concerned about is the way in which the outcomes for ordinary, everyday people are so randomly decided; how little say they have in their own destiny. We come across this in several ways. There is, of course, the tossing of the coin that I have already mentioned. Ellie and James abnegate their decision as to where they are going to travel and hand their future over to fate. They are lucky they have the option to renounce personal choice of their own free will. Those under Soviet domination will not be so lucky. Unless, of course, they happen to have money and influence. If you are a world renown conductor then don’t worry, someone will get you out to the West. An ordinary citizen, like Lenka, however is going to have to stay and, if you will excuse the pun, face the music. Most telling however, are the constant reminders of how James and Ellie met, taking part in what is described as a sub-Beckett play in which their two characters, Fando and Lis, are searching (fruitlessly) for the city of Tar. Reading about the Czechs’ attempts to exert free will, knowing that they are not going to make it, is very like watching the characters in a Beckett play delude themselves that they are in charge of their destinies when all the time the world is conspiring to reduce them to ashes.
This is not the first time that Simon Mawer has written about Czechoslovakia’s troubled history. His 2009 Booker shortlisted novel, The Glass Room, explored the years between 1930 and the country’s annexation by the Nazis in 1938 through into the post-war period. Perhaps there is some family connection, I don’t know. What I do know is that he appears to have a real sense of empathy with the Czech people and the turbulent times through which they have lived and I strongly recommend this book.