When the novel The Glass Room by the British writer Simon Mawer was published in 2009 it was an instant hit, and it was no surprise when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The book was widely discussed in the Czech Republic as it revolves around the story of one this country’s most remarkable twentieth century buildings, the Villa Tugendhat in Brno. This was not Simon Mawer’s first novel set in the city. Over a decade earlier he wrote Mendel’s Dwarf, which took its inspiration from Gregor Mendel, one of the fathers of genetics and the abbot of a Brno monastery in the 19th century. And now Simon Mawer has done it again. His latest book is called Prague Spring, and this time the setting is not Brno but Prague, in the days just before and after the Soviet-led invasion in August 1968. He has just been in Prague to launch the book’s Czech translation, and David Vaughan took the opportunity to talk to him. Their conversation begins with a short extract from the book.
Next morning they venture out into the city, with an agreement to meet Lenka for coffee at the Kavárna Slávia. ‘It is where all writers get together,’ she explained when they made the arrangement. ‘Everyone argues. It will be interesting.’
So James and Ellie wander the streets of Nové Město, the New Town, finding them drab and dusty. The few shops have plain windows and sparsely packed shelves. The buildings, nineteenth-century most of them, appear tarnished and battered, like pieces of forgotten family silver found behind a locked door. Advertisements seem half-hearted, as though there is little point in making much impact because no one’s really buying. Trams packed with people clang and grind along the wider roads. In Wenceslas Square there’s some kind of public meeting: a speaker harangues a small crowd. Flags fly. Perhaps it’s a celebration of some kind, but it’s impossible to tell. As they walk away a man darts out of a side street and tries to sell them something. James assumes it’s sex of some kind; Ellie imagines stolen goods. But it’s just money he wants to sell, Czech crowns for hard currency. ‘Good rate,’ he says, presumably the only English he knows.
This is Prague in the summer of 1968. James and Ellie are two very young students from England, who have just hitchhiked their way to Prague. There’s a parallel story of a young British diplomat, Sam, and his girlfriend Lenka. What gave you the idea for this constellation of characters?
“The James and Ellie part, the students, came from my own personal experience. I was a student in the summer of 1968, hitchhiking. Sam came, obviously, from my mind and my imagination, but I think I wanted to balance James and Ellie, who are the naïve, with somebody who has more of an insight into what’s going on within the country. They’re both outsiders, but outsiders of a rather different sort.”
You’re telling the story primarily from the point of view of people from Britain, who’ve found themselves in Prague. There is a sense of chance. On several occasions you use the metaphor of tossing a coin. At one point, James and Ellie literally toss a coin to decide where to go. Throughout the book you have a feeling that these are people who have had history imposed upon them, without having the faintest idea what to do.
“I suppose it seemed to me at the time of writing just a sort of dramatic device, but it is a counterpoint to the fact that it’s anything but chance what is happening in and around Czechoslovakia with the build-up of the Warsaw Pact forces around the country. And the ultimate decision to move in is the opposite of chance.”
Throughout the book you have a menacing sense of the troops building up on the borders, which is a great advantage of the fact that you set the book partly at the British Embassy. They were getting intelligence that this was happening and that an invasion might be about to happen. But no one could be certain.
“No. There was the tremendous hope, and it’s a hope that was dashed. Of course, I had to attempt to write it as it was at the time, when people didn’t know, but, as you say, the diplomats – possibly – had a better insight into the possibilities than the ordinary people.”
And a couple of times in the narration you move out of the period. There’s a point when James and Ellie cross the Czechoslovak border, and you have a description of the border today. There is no border, just a motorway with a little sign.
“Yes, I couldn’t resist it. That border is fascinating. Driving through Germany a couple of years ago, I diverted in order to see the old border. And it’s there. It’s a relic.”
At a time when there’s so much talk of re-establishing borders, both with Brexit and with refugees coming into Europe, there’s a certain irony in the fact that you point to the miracle of the reopening of the Czechoslovak border.
This is your third novel set in what is now the Czech Republic. Each of the novels is set in a different time and has a completely different subject. What is the fascination for you?
“People keep asking me this question. I keep failing to answer it. There are all sorts of things that are attractive and interesting about what was Czechoslovakia and is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Whether that is what explains my continuing interest, I’m not really sure. There’s nothing else, no family connection or anything like that.”
Is it perhaps that it’s a country that you know well, but you’re also able to look at it from outside, which can be a big advantage for a writer?
“That is true. I’ve known the Czech Republic now for 25 years, which is a quarter of a century, which makes it seem rather longer. But as you say I’ve dipped into to it and I’m obviously an outsider, particularly – which is a frustrating point – linguistically. I live in Italy, and I’m an outsider in Italy despite having lived there for 40 years. I go back to England now quite regularly and actually have a house there, and I’m also an outsider there. I think novelists are often natural outsiders.”
All three of your books set in this country show evidence of a great depth of research. Do you find it hard working with this research and combining it with writing a fictional story?
“One obviously has to get it as right as possible. There’s also a great danger of becoming didactic. But I do feel, in this book particularly, that there are certain things the English-speaking reader probably doesn’t know and ought to know – the story of Milada Horáková, for example.”
The part about Milada Horáková is another digression in the novel. As you put it in the book, her story is that of a person who is quite unambiguously a hero.
“Absolutely. She is not well-known in Britain and I suspect not well-known outside the Czech Lands, and she seems to me to be clearly one of the great people of the 20th century. She deserves exposure, she deserves to be known about.”
For the sake of listeners who don’t know about her, could you in a couple of sentences tell us a little more of her story?
“She was a person who was on the wrong side of two awful systems. She was a natural democrat. She was a woman who believed in free speech and liberal values. She was on the wrong side of the Nazis when Czechoslovakia was occupied, and she was actually sentenced to death by the Nazis. It was commuted to life imprisonment and then she was liberated at the end of the war. She came back home to Prague and within a couple of years she was on the wrong side of the communists. She was subject to a famous show-trial and sentenced to death. She refused to confess in public in the trial. She spoke the truth. She was the only one of the group who actually refused to give in to the prepared confessions. And she paid the price.”
Around two thirds of your book is set in the summer of 1968, just before the Warsaw Pact invasion. In Czechoslovakia, with the reforms of the Prague Spring, there was a sense of euphoria, just as there had been in Paris and other western cities a little earlier. Suddenly the invasion happens, and the story speeds up enormously. Part of the drama is set right outside the Czechoslovak Radio building.
“Yes, and that was when a lot of what was happening came to be known in the west – because of the broadcasting that was going on. It was being followed on western media because of the broadcasting that was going on within the Czech Radio building and then subsequently people moving through the city, broadcasting constantly. This was all being relayed to the west, so it was very vivid in the minds of people in the west. It was enacted on the media. Nowadays it would be even more extraordinary because of the social media, but even then television broadcasting was going on from shifting studios.”
And at the time there were even western rock stars and pop groups here, one of them being the Moody Blues, who actually come into the story.
“I couldn’t resist it. You can actually find the film of them on the internet. They performed on the afternoon of the day before the invasion. The invasion was during the night and they were performing Nights in White Satin, amongst other songs, on the Charles Bridge.”
There’s always been something of the absurd in Czech history, and that’s a classic example.
We’re recording this interview in the Václav Havel Library and you’re here for the launch of Czech translation of the novel. You mentioned that part of your aim in writing it was slightly didactic – you are a school teacher by profession – to inform people in the English-speaking world more about what happened in Czechoslovakia and what the implications of that were. Obviously, Czechs are far more familiar with what was going on in 1968 than most English-speaking readers. Are you slightly nervous as to how Czech readers will respond?
“Yes. Certainly. One’s trespassing on recent memory. I was very aware of the fact that I had to get everything right. I think I have. I hope I have.”
Do you think that you’ve got the Czech Republic out of your system now or do you have a suspicion that it might creep back into another of your books?
“I can’t see any way that it might, but I probably said that after The Glass Room. This is a country which I know very well and visit frequently. Who knows? There might be something else.”