2020 was a hell of a year. Future historians will undoubtably look back on the last twelve months and wonder just how and why things managed to unfold so horribly. Closer to our current predicament, today’s historians view 1968 as a year like few others. Outrage over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War fueled widespread political unrest both at home and abroad, compounded by escalating racial strife, two horrific political assassinations and a contentious presidential campaign. Overseas, a military offensive unleashed by the North Vietnamese and their Vietcong allies wounded America’s fighting resolve while half a world away violent protests rocked Paris, threatening the very existence of the modern French state. Meanwhile, in the Communist world China and the USSR eyed each other with warlike suspicion, the former convulsed in the throes of the Cultural Revolution as rival elites enlisted the nation’s youth in a chaotic and deadly battle for political supremacy. Lastly, in the midst of all this insanity the relatively small, landlocked nation of Czechoslovakia in Central Europe optimistically attempted to create “socialism with a human face” and plot a risky middle path between Western capitalism and Soviet-imposed Communist authoritarianism.
Simon Mawer’s 2018 historical novel Prague Spring is the story of two couples and the respective paths they took leading to their lives briefly but profoundly intersecting in Prague during this short-lived flowering of democracy and the Soviet-led onslaught that crushed it.
Oxford students James and Eleanor, bored and in search of more exotic locales agree in a pub one night to hitchhike across Europe. As they meander across the Continent the two mismatched friends soon find themselves mismatched lovers, and reap all the tension and complications associated with it. While traveling through West Germany they decide on a lark to make an unscheduled detour to Czechoslovakia, sensing from a pair of random interactions with musicians (one, a German classical performer and her nephew, and the others, an American rock band) Prague is on the cusp of something novel and amazing.
Not long after arriving in Prague they paths cross with Sam Wareham, a British diplomat assigned to his nation’s embassy in Prague and his Czech girlfriend Lenka. Just like James and Eleanor, their relationship is also in its early stages, with James meeting and consequently pursuing Lenka mere days after his previous girlfriend has left the county. Considering the potential security risks involved with a member of the diplomatic corp fraternizing with an attractive young woman from the Soviet Bloc their guarded romance, while perhaps not illicit, is nevertheless viewed as a bit on the taboo side by Sam’s embassy superiors, whom he butts heads with on a semi-regular basis. This is made all the more complicated once Sam learns of Lenka’s youthful indiscretions.
When, not if the armies of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact decide to cross the frontier and terminate Czechoslovakia’s experiment in democracy these two couples will need both good luck and timely assistance from well-placed friends and colleagues if they’re to survive.
Mawer is a damn good writer and I’m embarrassed to say despite his sizable body of work I’d never heard of him until now. After having great luck with Prague Spring I’m tempted go back on Overdrive and borrow more of his stuff. I have no problem recommending this well written historical thriller.