Author, Benjamin Black, Book review, crime/thriller, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Viking

‘Prague Nights’ by Benjamin Black

Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2017.

Benjamin Black is the pseudonym Irish writer John Banville uses when he pens crime novels (though he has abandoned that recently with the publication of his most recent cosy crime novels, Snow and April in Spain).

But Prague Nights, set in 1599, is not so much a crime novel but a political intrigue set in the shadowy world of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, the eccentric Rudolf II.

Atmospheric murder mystery

This deeply atmospheric tale begins with the narrator, Christian Stern, a 25-year-old doctor and travelling scholar from Bavaria, arriving in Prague one snowy evening. He is drunk and a bit lost when he stumbles upon the body of a young woman lying in the shadow of the castle wall. She’s wearing a glamourous velvet gown with a large gold medallion around her neck, suggesting she comes from wealth, and her throat has been slashed.

He reports her death to the nearest sentry guards and is immediately assumed to be the culprit. He’s thrown into prison and looks set to be put to death for a crime he did not commit. But fate intervenes in the form of His Majesty who has had a dream about a saviour arriving from the west.

‘From your name—Christian Stern—it seems that you must be that God-sent star, for how else would we interpret such a happy confluence, hmm?’

He is told that the woman, Magdalena Kroll, is the daughter of the Emperor’s doctor and is asked to investigate the crime. It is during his enquiries that he discovers she was also the Emperor’s secret lover.

As Stern moves within the court’s circles, looking for motives and trying to determine how he should proceed, he is bewitched by Caterina Sardo — “His Majesty’s concubine and mother of his ill-gotten bastards” — and becomes her lover. This unknowingly puts him in a compromised position, for in Rudolf II’s world it’s difficult to know who to trust and who to avoid. There’s a power struggle going on and Stern risks being caught in the middle.

Later, when a second body — a man believed to have been romantically involved with Magdalena —  is found floating in the river, with his eyes gouged out and terrible rope burns on his neck, it appears that someone might have taken the law into their own hands. Stern soon realises his investigation is at risk of being derailed because too many powerful people have a stakehold in the outcome. What he does next could put his own life in grave danger.

Not a conventional crime tale

Prague Nights isn’t a conventional crime story. There’s not much of a plot other than to follow one hapless naive man’s attempt to find out how Magdalena was murdered.

I’d argue this story is actually historical fiction, perhaps even literary fiction, because it is character-led, features a wonderfully evocative setting and the dense, detailed prose is ripe with Banville-esque descriptions (he loves to tell us about the clothes people are wearing in rich, filmic detail, for instance), witty asides, metaphors and similes:

I felt, when he held me in his grip like this, that we were a pair of skaters halted motionless upon the thinnest of ice, our skates about to buckle beneath us, or the ice to crack, or one of us to fall and bring the other down with him.

What makes the story compelling is not so much discovering who murdered Magdalena but in wondering whether Stern is going to get away with his role in the Emperor’s inner circle given that he is sleeping with the Emperor’s mistress. There’s a whole series of untrustworthy characters with whom he has to deal, each one with an agenda to grind and each with the ability to thwart his investigation and expose his affair, providing a sinister, shadowy feel to the story.

This is an intriguing novel. It’s not fast-paced, so don’t expect a page-turner. Instead, this is a story to linger over, to soak up the language and the 16th Century Bohemian setting, and to experience the dangers that confront the main characer on almost every page.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Czechoslovakia, Favel Parrett, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘There was Still Love’ by Favel Parrett

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 224 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes you read a book and it becomes a total balm for the soul. This was the exact feeling that was evoked when I read Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which has been shortlisted for the 2020 Stella Prize and recently won the Book of the Year at the Indie Book Awards.

This gently told tale in sparse prose is about the impact of the Cold War on one family. Twin sisters, Eva (Babi) and Máňa, are separated by hemispheres — and political ideologies — for one remains in Prague after the Second World War and the other immigrates to Melbourne, Australia.

In a narrative that swings between time periods and locations  —  Prague, 1938; Prague 1980 and Melbourne 1980 — the family’s history is revealed through the eyes of the twins’ grandchildren, Luděk, in Prague, and Malá Liška (“little fox”), in Melbourne.

Their voices, naive and innocent, are wonderfully realised, for there are things that the children do not understand about politics and economic systems and the real reason why the adults around them behave as they do. This makes for a bittersweet read, because you become emotionally invested in the characters, but it’s also an effective device for showing how children see the beauty in the smallest of things and how their worlds are shaped by the adults around them.

A story about grandparents

Perhaps during this time of coronavirus lockdown when grandchildren are separated from their grandparents, this book proves a timely reminder of the bonds that can be created between the generations (the author dedicates the book to her own grandparents “who were the very best of people”).

But this is also a tale about immigration, specifically what it is like to immigrate, to recreate a home away from home and of the dislocation one feels when you do not truly belong to one place or another, of the heartache of leaving loved ones behind and of knowing that you can never truly be together anymore, of the casual racism experienced in an unfamiliar culture.

It also reveals the sacrifices and compromises that are made along the way, the stories we tell ourselves to get through the day, and of the way we cling to traditions and cultural props.

But this is also a story that brims with love and laughter. It’s full of beautiful imagery and lush descriptions of food. In fact, food is a constant theme in this book, because it is food which — aside from family left behind — ties you to your homeland more than anything else:

A feast.
Bottles of beer and bottles of wine — lemonade for me, sweet and fizzy. Chicken schnitzels, fried potato, cucumber salad.
That was my favourite — cucumber salad with cream and vinegar and black pepper, chilled from the fridge so all the cucumber juice got sucked out of the cucumber slices and mixed in with the cream. The salad bowl still had some of the cream left in the bottom and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I wanted to grab the big bowl up in my hands and drink the cream down.

The UK edition is published by Sceptre

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved There was Still Love. It brims with love and charm, the perfect antidote to the strange times we are currently living through.

But don’t take my word for it. There have been lots of great reviews of this novel by other bloggers, including Lisa at ANZLitLovers, Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest and Susan at A Life in Books.

I have previously reviewed Favel Parrett’s When The Night Comes, which I also loved.

This is my 5th book for #AWW2020.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, Laurent Binet, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a unique take on the historical novel: it not only blends fact with fiction, the narrative includes the author’s own thoughts on researching and writing the story. What results is an intriguing hybrid, one that constantly reminds us that we can’t always trust the portrayal of history to be accurate or “truthful”, because there will always be elements that are confusing, ambiguous or simply unknowable.

A deadly plot from World War Two

The book focuses on a particular real-life event: the attempted assassination of Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 27 May 1942 by two British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, in a plot dubbed Operation Anthropoid.

As well as exploring the parachutists’ exploits once they are behind enemy lines and all the events leading up to, and after, the planned assassination, it also  looks at Heydrich’s stellar rise up the Nazi ranks to become acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he violently suppressed Czech culture and helped plan the “Final Solution”.

In literary terms, Heydrich is a wonderful character — “It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature” — whose horrifying exploits earned him various names, including “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Hangman of Europe” and “The Blond Beast”. In fact, he was regarded as the most dangerous man in the Reich and was seen as a natural successor to Hitler.

He was widely believed to be the brains behind his boss, Heinrich Himmler — and this is the inspiration behind the title HHhH, an acronym of “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”, which is German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.

How does a novelist stick to the facts?

But as Binet tells Heydrich’s story, he struggles to stick strictly to the facts: he wants to make things up, to add “colour” to situations, to fill in gaps, to create dialogue, to explain character’s motivations and desires:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect — and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it — ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy — the unmappable pattern of causality.

He often shows his hand — for instance, when he says a German tank enters the city at 9am he adds that he doesn’t know if that’s true given that the “most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars”.

In another example he describes Goring as being “squeezed into a blue uniform”:

I don’t know why. I just imagine it being blue. It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day. He might just as easily have been wearing white, for example.

A Marmite book?

The danger with this kind of narrative structure in which the author butts in and interrupts the story to show his thinking is that you either love it or hate it.

If you’ve never really thought about the factual accuracy of historical fiction then you will probably find Binet’s approach fascinating and illuminating.

Me? I found it wearing. I’m a journalist. I know how these things work. I know that it is not always possible to verify every single conceivable, often minor and unimportant, facts — for instance, the colour of people’s clothes worn on a certain date and the exact words spoken behind closed doors — and I believe that a certain journalistic licence is acceptable if it helps get to the “truth” of a story.

But this criticism is not to diminish Binet’s achievement. HHhH is a highly original and astonishing “faction” novel, fast-paced, easy to read and full of thrilling drama. It’s incredibly evocative of time and place — the descriptions of Prague are especially rich and vivid — and meticulous in its detail (I particularly liked all the books and movies that Binet references throughout, many of which I’d read or watched in the past).  All in all, I loved its exploration of loyalty, betrayal, heroism and revenge.

HHhh won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a highly regarded French literary prize for a first novel, and was shortlisted for various other literary prizes around the world, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Alison Pick, Author, Book review, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, Headline Review, holocaust, Publisher, Setting

‘Far to Go’ by Alison Pick


Fiction – hardcover; Headline Review; 288 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

Alison Pick’s Far to Go has been longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

It is billed as a history of the Kindertransport — in which nearly 10,000 Jewish children were sent to Britain to escape Nazi Germany during the Second World War — but that’s really only part of the story. The heart of this novel revolves around a married couple, Pavel and Anneliese Bauer, who fail to agree on how to personally deal with the invasion of Czechoslovakia, their homeland, by the Nazis.

The pair are well-to-do non-practising Jews.

Pavel, a wealthy and successful industrialist, refuses to believe that he should do anything other than carry out his life as normal. He is fiercely nationalistic and does not accept that Czechoslovakia will be occupied. He will not kowtow to the Germans, nor feel ashamed of his Jewishness.

But Anneliese, his rather uptight glamorous wife, is frightened. She knows that the political situation does not bode well and takes defensive steps to ensure the family’s safety — moving to Prague, for instance, in the hope that things will blow over. And when they don’t, she is eager to escape eastern Europe altogether. It is only when Pavel continues to bury his head in the sand that she tries to convince him that he should at least think of his six-year-old son, Pepik, and get him on the Kindertransport.

Pepik’s trip to Britain is not so much the focus of the novel, but its climax. His journey does not begin until page 245, which is part four of a story divided into five parts.

What’s more, much of the tale is told through the eyes of a Gentile, who resides with the Bauer family. Her name is Marta and she is Pepik’s devoted nanny. She is quite naive — and young — and gets entangled in an illicit romantic dalliance with Ernst, one of Pavel’s business associates, that puts the Bauer family in danger.

But Marta is kind-hearted and loyal — if occasionally misguided — and very much devoted to her young charge. She is so well drawn that in many ways she is the life and soul of the novel, and it’s hard not to feel for her situation, caught between a young family she wishes to serve and an older man — a Nazi sympathiser — who offers her excitement, passion and intrigue.

This might sound like a fairly straightforward story, but Pick frames it in an usual way, breaking up each section with letters between family members — written after Pepik has gone to Britain — and chapters written by a modern Holocaust expert who has a mysterious connection to the Bauers. This connection isn’t revealed until the very end of the book, which makes for a fine conclusion, and adds an extra layer of meaning to an otherwise predictable plot.

Far to Go, which is based on Pick’s own family history, is not a typical Holocaust novel. Yes, it’s sad and yes, it’s filled with tragedy and betrayal. But this isn’t a story about what happened during the War, but what life was like before the Nazis banished — and exterminated — the Jews and the legacy that survivors were confronted with after their families had been destroyed.

I wouldn’t describe the book as anything particularly special — and I’m loathe to understand its inclusion on this year’s Man Booker longlist — but it’s an interesting story, well told, and there are worse ways to spend your time than reading this one.

Author, Bohumil Hrabal, Book review, Books in translation, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘I Served the King of England’ by Bohumil Hrabal


Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2009. Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson.

It’s not very often I read a book and feel completely ambivalent about it, but that’s how I felt when I finished Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, but I enjoyed reading it and am glad I tackled it, even if I’m in no hurry to read the rest of Hrabal’s back catalogue.

The story, which is set in Czechoslovakia during the late 1930s, is narrated by Ditie, an ambitious busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel, who dreams of becoming a millionaire. He supplements his income by selling frankfurters at a railway station but cheats customers out of their change by waiting until they’ve boarded the train.

Then I’d fumble about for the change, and the fellow would yell at me to forget the coins and just give him the notes. Very slowly I’d start patting my pockets, and the dispatcher would blow his whistle, and very slowly I’d ease the notes out of my pocket, and the train would start moving, and I’d trot alongside it, and when the train had picked up speed I’d reach out so that the notes would just barely brush the tips of the fellow’s fingers, and sometimes he’d be leaning out so far that someone inside would have to hang onto his legs, and one of my customers even beamed himself of a signal post. But then the fingers would be out of reach, and I’d stand there panting, the money still in my outstretched hand, and it was all mine. They almost never came back for their change, and that’s how I started having money of my own, a couple of hundred a month, and once I even got handed a thousand-crown note.

With this kind of initiative, it’s no surprise that Ditie does, eventually, make his fortune.

He changes jobs several times, moving to more prestigious hotels where he’s exposed to more affluent guests and comes under the tutelage of a maître d‘ who once served the King of England. He has various affairs with different women, including prostitutes along the way. Indeed, he has a penchant for brothels, and spends a lot of his money on prostitutes whose laps he adorns with lavish displays of flowers — peony petals, daisies, sprigs of fir or mistletoe.

He later gets the chance to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia and is presented with a blue sash and a medal, the highpoint of his career as a waiter, but then almost loses the plot — and his life — when he is accused of stealing one of the gold teaspoons used at the event.

It’s these farcical moments which makes the novel a delight to read. Much of it is incredibly funny, and even in moments of potential tragedy, it’s hard not to laugh.

But when the Germans invade Prague the narrative takes on a new, sinister dimension, in complete contrast to all that has come before. Ditie falls in love with a German gym teacher and becomes a Nazi sympathizer. It takes awhile to come to grips with this strange turn of events, but it only serves as a taster to a whole series of weird and surreal twists in the narrative ahead, including Ditie’s imprisonment for being a millionaire.

I Served the King of England is a strange, witty novel about one man’s fantastic journey from rags to riches and back again.

The book was first published in 1971 but has recently been reissued by Vintage Classics in quite a striking purple cover designed by Japanese artist Mio Matsumoto.