Sunday, February 26, 2023

Prague Spring (2018), by Simon Mawer


Greedy people are never satisfied that they have enough. They’re like sharks that spend their entire life hunting and consuming. All the oceans in the world can’t satisfy these eating machines.
~ Frank Sonnenberg, Follow Your 

A Novelist’s Reflections on Useful FictionsHedgehog Review

Secretaries turned spies, love and duty, and sacrifice—inspired by the true story of the CIA plot to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Soviet Russia, not with propaganda, but with the greatest love story of the twentieth century: 
~Doctor ZhivagoThe Secrets We Kept

Prague Spring (2018), by Simon Mawer

Although I have a tempting pile of new Australian releases waiting for me, I’m continuing my holiday reading from the TBR, with an added reason to take up Simon Mawer’s Prague Spring from 2018, because I have just bought Ancestry, his most recent one — and I really should read what I already have first, right?

There’s a review at The Guardian which recounts how in 1975 Mawer was caught in an avalanche on the North Face of Ben Nevis and had to cling to an ice ledge for 22 hours.  Whether this experience informed his ability to capture the suspense of existential moments I do not know, but while Prague Spring is not a cliffhanger, it becomes unputdownable as the pages move towards their inexorable conclusion.

It is history that makes the conclusion inexorable.  Set in 1968 when Czechoslovakia enjoyed a brief taste of freedom under Dubčekbefore the Soviet tanks rolled in, the novel traces the narratives of a naïve young couple of hitchhikers who stumble into trouble, and the story of an English diplomat walking a tightrope between love and duty.  Ellie and James are an ill-matched pair from Oxford, playfully choosing a route through Europe by a roll of the die, while Sam Wareham, progressing his career at the embassy, is disarmed by falling in love with Lenka — who not only has the kind of past that tests the UK-Soviet relationship, but is also sufficiently optimistic about the prospects of ‘socialism with a human face’ that she does some rather imprudent things.

Well, only imprudent because we all know what happened. Mawer’s characters do not have the wisdom of hindsight, and his omniscient narrator sometimes reminds us of that.  The presence of Soviet tanks massing on the border gives the novel a contemporary relevance not merely because of current events in Europe but also because of the protests in Iran where authorities are cracking down on dissidents with an iron fist.

Prague Spring offers an interesting contrast to the prevailing tabloid narrative about the diplomatic service ‘doing nothing’.  Without labouring the point, Mawer makes it clear that that embassies can only operate under certain constraints, and through a thread about would-be Soviet defectors he shows that those constraints can not only hamper the help an embassy would like to give but must also cover up its successes in order to be able to maintain its apparently uninvolved stance. The novel is also a vivid portrayal of the endless surveillance of the diplomats.  Lenka, who has lived under Soviet surveillance all her life, chafes under her experience of it with Sam. He OTOH is used to it and has developed a range of strategies for managing it.

Mawer’s love of the city shines through this novel.  I’ve never been to Prague, but I imagine that those who have will savour the descriptions of the historic buildings and streetscapes.  The scenes set in concert halls are particularly vivid, and the descriptions of the emotive power of music are stunning. James, an unsophisticated student from The North in England whose default position is rationality, but he is moved to tears…

Is it a lament for something innocent that is lost forever?  James tries to cling to the notes as they circle around him, but they are ephemeral, evanescent, each following the other and all dying away before he can work out what to do with them. It is the totality that matters, not the fragments; the whole complex wave equation, not the individual terms.  And as he listens, emotion creeps up on him without him being aware of it, like a thief in the night coshing him from behind. (p.236)

Prague Spring is a beautiful novel that puts the reader behind the scenes in times of mass dissent. Highly recommended.

Update, later the same day (when the power was restored!): This slide show features some of the lovely buildings in Prague.

Image credits:

Author: Simon Mawer
Title: Prague Spring
Cover design: Charlotte Stromner
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2018
ISBN: 9781408711156, pbk., 393 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Ulysses Bookstore, Hampton