288 pages, $26
Review by Michelle Elvy
Long after I finished reading Jeffrey Condran’s novel Prague Summer, the opening quote by WB Yeats lingers in my mind: “What do we know but that we face one another in this place?” It is the most suitable of quotes to set the scene, and this idea that there’s nothing more important than the space between us creates a haunting mood.
The novel begins twice, really. First with a body falling quite beautifully from the sky:
The body seemed almost to float as it left the protection of the window casement. Against the dark sky, buoyed on a humid night’s air, its pale green skirt billowed like gossamer around thin hips and legs. The passive face of the woman looked toward the heavens, mouth open, a few strands of dark hair caught in the corner of her colored lips. For a moment, the whole—skirt, legs, hips, hair—paused cinematically before remembering its obligation to fall swiftly to the unforgiving cement below.
A strong opening moment, a defenestration to set the mood. A woman falling effortlessly, almost gracefully, toward her eventual and inevitable demise.
Scene change and we move from Prologue to Chapter One and the rest of the novel, related in first person through the eyes of Henry Marten, owner of Hades Rare Books (“Help Save an Old Book from the Underworld”) and expat with a seemingly charmed life. Henry lives in Prague with his diplomat wife Stephanie. The couple go to parties, eat fine food and watch Poirot. They enjoy a dependable sex life and share inside jokes. They are each comfortably ensconced in their worlds. Things change, however, when Stephanie’s college friend, Selma, shows up to visit. Selma’s husband is being held in the US on terrorism charges with no sign of release, and Selma seeks space to get away from the stress of fighting for his freedom. But Selma’s situation grows increasingly worrying for both Henry and Stephanie and becomes the thing that threatens to unravel their carefully constructed life.
The international intrigue is an interesting angle: expats disdaining the War on Terror, forced now to deal with a personally trying situation up close and first-hand. Indeed, it becomes Henry’s job to console Selma: to help take her mind off her troubles by showing literary Prague. And he does. Sort of.
There is much to admire about this book, especially toward the end. But you have to arrive at the end first, and I admit, regrettably, that I stumbled along the way.
Certainly Prague’s central role is fitting (and the title, with reference and in contrast to Prague Spring). A place where individuals can operate outside their normal bounds, where secrets are held between the walls of castles and cathedrals. The novel is like a walking tour of Prague: there is the Charles Bridge, and up high on the hill the Castle; we see an exhibit at the New Town Hall and stroll through Wenceslas Square. The Café Franz Kafka figures centrally, and our main man frequents a restaurant serving “pure Czech traditional: pork in six different ways, goulash, potato dumplings, hardly a green vegetable in sight.” The writer places us right in the city and paints the scenes well.
But in the midst of this authentic world of goulash and dumplings, there are also one too many moments of History or Lit 101. We receive a lecture on defenestration near the beginning (referencing the Prologue, too), and then an almost too clever allusion later on, in case we’ve forgotten the significance of that historical moment. There’s a walking tour which includes a mini history lesson on Rudolph II. There’s the Malleus Maleficarum on exhibit – another opportunity to impart knowledge. With multiple references to famous occurrences and people, the novel’s background feels a little heavy-handed, as if there’s a list to be checked off (Kundera? the Jewish cemetery? Kafka? Check, check, check). There is no doubt this writer knows his way around the city and is well read (from Cyrano de Bergerac to AS Byatt), but the place- and name-dropping feel overdone.
I am sorry to say I did not fall in love with Condran’s characters, even if I liked some of the descriptions. The writer/narrator tells us everyone loves Henry’s friend Michael Leo, but I never really had the chance. Stephanie, Henry’s wife, is a strong character with a central role, but only at the end does she move beyond the long-legged, über-accomplished wife with fine degrees and hard-working attitude. She’s got her own story, no doubt, and I wanted to know more of it. The Irishman Morgan, Henry’s sidekick at the Hades, is entertaining – a refreshing change of pace from the serious-minded characters who fill the pages of this book. I wanted more from all these characters. I wanted more depth, and I wanted their individual stories to weave more with Henry’s, beyond being foils to our main man’s trajectory.
More centrally, the conundrum Selma faces – the idea that she’s so desperate to save her husband and therefore flees to Prague – is almost not believable. She’s on a mission, it turns out; she’s not just there for a little R&R and catching up with old friends. But the idea at the center of the story, that Selma will stop at nothing to pursue her goal, feels slightly forced.
Then there’s Henry, our hapless hero who stumbles into Selma’s world and becomes embroiled more than he’d like. Henry is a little too in love with his own life, and the small world his bookstore and his cohort occupy (his friends Michael and Anna are the epicentre of the world; “I frame the world through books,” he tells us.) All scenes and people are compared to an obvious classic: Michael is “our Gertrude Stein but without the sexual politics or annoying repetitions. A drink is a drink is a drink…”; Anthony is “Jake Barnes without the unfortunate injury”; a blonde beauty at a cocktail party came to Prague because of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Besides that, Henry’s a little too pleased with his status of expat: “Prague, from behind the wheel of a speeding Jaguar, is nothing but a series of bright sunlight colors, the faint impression of people on the street looking back at me with envy in their eyes…” Poor, deluded Henry, who believes his world is the best world. I do not find myself admiring these characters with envy, or wanting to be in the car with them.
Which is hard to pull off – and herein lies the most important thing about this book. Smug Henry is hard to like, and yet, I found myself cheering him on when his eventual transformation, messy as it is, arrives. Condran handles Henry’s central conflict and potential fallout (disaster is possible down so many roads) with a deft hand, and there comes a grappling with the very point of storytelling about ¾ of the way through – much to my delight (if a little late). In fact, the notion that the central storyteller of a first-person narrator is not the central person in the narration reveals a sense of play that I admire, that I wish could have been applied to our central character all along. When we finally see how the plot and voice twist and turn, we celebrate, with Henry, a kind of Eureka! moment. And we can’t help but note with relief how the writer handles the ending — how the power of storytelling and all the assumptions wrapped up in Henry’s narrative are, quite directly, stripped from Henry’s hands.
And also, here at the end, I should note that the writing kept me going in this novel. Never mind the small errors which should have been discovered by an editor – incorrect commas and misspellings, misplaced apostrophes on one’s and let’s and it’s, and the overly common for her and I. Ignore those, and the reader finds delicate moments, written with a sure hand. Here, for example, is a scene when Henry finally realizes something important about someone else, when he reaches beyond his own story and steps into someone else’s:
Not now, but later, I will think that the only way to save somebody who has slipped beyond the lines is to wade out into the deep yourself and get them.
It is this moment that I admire most, when Henry gets over himself and views the world through a different lens. Outside himself, Henry is the person I wish him to be. He is no longer a self-congratulatory expat living a dream life, overly proud of his status in Prague as an Expert of Great Books; he is something else entirely, doubtful and troubled:
[S]omething chokes up from a deep place inside me, and I am desperate to spit it out. A furiously sudden frustration at. . .what? My wife? My work? My friends? Even at Uncle Nemec and his leering demeanor. At anything messy and human…
And I am finally with him. His life, up to now, is too neat, too perfect. Bring on the messy.
Not too far from the end, Henry looks inward and wonders: “Am I happy? Nearly.” The honesty of that moment is beautiful. This is, finally, a character I care about.
Michelle Elvy is an editor and writer based in New Zealand. She edits at Flash Frontier and Blue Five Notebook, and is on the editorial teams of Flash Fiction International and the Best Small Fictions series. Her poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction have been published in print and online journals