Prague Spring – Simon Mawer
The title Prague Spring probably promises more of a historical political thriller than it actually delivers, but another way of looking at it is that it captures more of a sense of the event from the varying perspective of ordinary Czech nationals, casual foreign visitors and the diplomatic personnel, none of whom would have had any real idea of what was about to happen. In Simon Mawer’s novel the main perspective that has to carry the weight of the political and historical implications is that of two couples, two couples that have an uneasy relationship with each other and with one another.
For James and Ellie, two young students from Oxford on a hastily arranged and largely improvised hitchhiking trip across Europe in 1968, it’s a journey of discovery in more ways than one. Just as they are working out their feelings for each other, so too Europe at this time is finding its feet not that long after the war. Although they both study at Oxford, they come from very different backgrounds; Ellie from a wealthy family, her father a lawyer, while James’s Sheffield northern accent betrays more humble roots and a slight inferiority complex.
For Sam Wareham, it’s another kind of clash of social and cultural backgrounds that takes him on a different path of self-discovery. Sam holds a post at the British Embassy in Prague, fluent in Russian and Czech, but his usually careful diplomatic skills are challenged when he embarks on a relationship with a young Czech student, Jenka. He does a few cursory background checks, but is more concerned about her past relationships than her political background or allegiances. With Russian troops gathering close to the border, his closeness to the young woman could turn out to be a rather reckless affair.
There’s an element of caution in both the fledgling relationships at the heart of Prague Spring, with all the parties being drawn to each other but a little wary of each other as well, uncertain of motives and most significantly, where it might take them. There’s an element of throwing caution to the wind and letting decisions fall to chance however, and not just in how James and Ellie find themselves behind the Iron Curtain on the toss of a coin. There’s a similar kind of volatile relationship in Europe at this time, with student riots on the streets of Paris and political uncertainty in the relationship between Czechoslovakia and Russia.
It’s not as if the personal relationships are crudely drawn as a metaphor for the situation in Europe and Czechoslovakia, but they do create a relatable sense of tension between unknown forces much better than any dry historical or geo-political discourse. Aware that most readers will know what is about to happen in Prague in August 1968, Mawer however does permit a few short authorial interventions that give some background on the key political figures from the period and hint at how future events pan out – for the people involved and for Czechoslovakia itself. Literary references to Fando y Lis, to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, to Dvorak’s Rusalka and to Kafka, of course, add to the richness of the imagery, hinting at challenging bonds and relationships, idealism, journeys with hopes of transformation, all of which have troubled or unclear outlooks.
All of these are pertinent to the question of human feelings and where they fit in under repressive regimes and repressive relationships, and in the context of Prague, consideration of what repression does to the human spirit. The richness of the character backgrounds and the additional literary references also blur or perhaps explore the line where political actions end and human feelings begin. There may not be any easy answer to that question, but in the context of the Prague Spring of 1968, it can be a very dangerous divide to cross.
It’s not so difficult to determine where allegiances and interests lie as far as the author is concerned; it’s firmly on the side of the people and he uses them to give weight and insight to the political situation, to the delicacy of diplomatic matters and what it means for real people living in those times. At times it might appear to lean a little too much towards the Prague Spring being a metaphor for a coming of age but there’s no question that the personal stories are involving and hold interest in their tension and uncertain outlook just as much as the knowledge of what is going to take place very soon on the streets of Prague.
Prague Spring by Simon Mawer is published by Little, Brown
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