Prague Spring ~ Simon Mawer

F9F2A25A-543F-4899-9866-D8DF120D57ECWay 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.

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15 thoughts on “Prague Spring ~ Simon Mawer

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings September 19, 2018 / 2:58 pm

    Well, I don’t usually read many modern novels but I must admit the subject matter and setting of this one appeals. I may have to give it a look… Lovely review! 🙂

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    • Café Society September 19, 2018 / 3:09 pm

      I think Mawer is seriously under-rated, Karen. I know he’s not your usual fare but I think you would enjoy both this and The Glass Room.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Margaret September 19, 2018 / 3:13 pm

    This appeals to me too – I loved The Glass Room, beautifully written and completely gripping!

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    • Café Society September 19, 2018 / 3:17 pm

      I enjoyed The Glass Room in a slightly different way because I didn’t know much about that period in Czech History. This was so powerful because it was a time I could remember and it was a potent reminder of just how threatening the iron curtain was during our teens and twenties.

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  3. FictionFan September 19, 2018 / 11:55 pm

    This sounds excellent – I shall add it to my wishlist immediately! Your comments on remembering made me think. In my youth, the big thing was anti-apartheid demos – my memories are of marching on summer days in the company of friends, cheerfully singing protest songs and ending the day having a knees-up in the pub – a jolly good time. Not very similar to the memories of people actually living under apartheid, I suspect…

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    • Café Society September 20, 2018 / 9:02 am

      Fiction Fan, I know it would be a long way for you to come but next spring the RSC, in collaboration with the Baxter Theatre of South Africa are staging a new play by John Kani, ‘Kunene and the King’, a two-hander for him and Antony Sher about the consequences of the fall of apartheid for both the Black and White South Africans. Kani is one of my all time theatre heroes. I first saw him in ‘Sizwe Banzi is Dead’, a Play about the South African pass laws, way back in the 1970s and I have been a fan ever since. If you’re interested in South African politics this will be something not to be missed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • FictionFan September 20, 2018 / 2:08 pm

        That does sound wonderful! I don’t do much travelling these days but I shall keep my fingers crossed they do it as one of their live broadcasts…

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  4. JacquiWine September 22, 2018 / 7:27 am

    Like Karen, I don’t read much in the way of new fiction these days, but your commentary on this book makes it sound very appealing. I too enjoyed The Glass Room when I read it a few years ago. It’s often interesting to look at a turbulent period in history from a slightly different perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Café Society September 22, 2018 / 4:34 pm

      If you enjoyed The Glass Room, Jacqui then I think you’ll enjoy this as well. It isn’t quite as textually dense as the earlier book but it is still a complex and thoughtful piece of writing.

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  5. heavenali September 22, 2018 / 10:31 pm

    Adding to my ever this sounds wonderfully evocative and a compelling read.

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    • heavenali September 22, 2018 / 10:31 pm

      Ever growing wishlist that should say.

      Like

    • Café Society September 23, 2018 / 11:51 am

      It is Ali, especially I think if, like me, you were pretty much the same age as James and Ellie when all this happened. I identified with their reactions very much.

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  6. Eva Hnizdo February 28, 2019 / 6:24 pm

    I loved the book. I loved in Prague till I emigrated to the Uk in 1986. Like Glass House and Mendel’s dwarf a master piece.
    But I am not sure about the ending, what happened? Was the open ending intentional or did I miss something?

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    • Café Society February 28, 2019 / 7:51 pm

      Mawer really is a first class writer, Eva. I haven’t read anything by him that I haven’t enjoyed. I thought the open ending was rather sinister. We’ve already had it brought to our attention that this is not the first time that Prague has suffered in this way; I thought the implication was that it might well not be the last.

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      • Eva Hnizdo March 2, 2019 / 3:34 am

        yes

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