Simon Mawer’s latest book Prague Spring is sent in the short flourishing of freedom in Czechoslovakia when Alexander Dubcek sought to create “socialism with a human face” by lifting censorship and expanding cultural freedoms. This was soon crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion to end, as they put it, the counterrevolution. James and Ellie are two Oxford students hitchhiking Europe during their holiday. James is infatuated with Ellie and Ellie is amused by James. She’s studying literature; he’s studying science. She has the lighthearted confidence of class privilege; he has the studious matter-of-factness of the working class. They decide not to decide as they travel, flipping a coin to make decisions. At one crossroad, they flip a coin and go to Prague.
Sam Wareham is a British diplomat working in Prague. He is sending off his not quite fianceé Steffie when we meet him, but then he meets Lenka Konečková and realizes that not-quite is really quite a good thing. Lenka is bold, sensual, and self-possessed. She challenges him and he falls for her, even knowing that affairs with the locals is a dangerous thing behind the Iron Curtain.
Of course, these two pairs come together and through Sam we see the historical and political context of the Prague Spring. Through Ellie and Sam, we see the cultural context, the movement of youth not yet disappointed and discouraged by repression. Lenka bridges the difference, situating that youthful optimism and activism not just in the cultural flowering, but also in the history, particularly in the history of her own family who suffered both Nazi and Communist repression.
It has been twenty years or so since I first read “Mendel’s Dwarf,” a book that still resonates with me to this day. I evangelized that book for years. In fact, I think I evangelized that book within the last six months. It’s a lot to live up to.
Prague Spring is a good story. Mawer excels at painting the historical picture, not just the time and place, but the zeitgeist, the swirling interplay of culture, society, and power. He creates characters who are likably imperfect, complex enough to surprise the reader and sometimes even themselves. And yet, by telling this story from the perspective of outsiders, Mawer takes the high stakes of liberation and repression and offers us the lowered stakes of what will likely be a travel anecdote to liven up their middle age. There is so much more at stake for Lenka and for the other Czechs, I found myself not really caring about what happens with Ellie and James. I care about Sam and Lenka because Lenka’s stakes are higher.
I received an e-galley of from Prague Spring the publisher through Edelweiss.