The side of the angels

<i>A Desert in Bohemia</i> by Jill Paton-Walsh (Doubleday, &pound;12.99, 334pp)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Jill Paton-Walsh likes the kind of fairy tales Shakespeare liked, with shipwrecks or their land-locked, man-made equivalents, mistaken identities and wandering lovers finally reunited. The history of Central Europe since the war also fascinates her. The sweep of her new novel, with the Shakespearean allusion and Czech lands in the title, is therefore enormous. From the final hours of the Second World War, with Czechs caught between fleeing Germans and arriving Russians, she takes us on a journey through the decade of terror which followed the consolidation of Communist power.

Jill Paton-Walsh likes the kind of fairy tales Shakespeare liked, with shipwrecks or their land-locked, man-made equivalents, mistaken identities and wandering lovers finally reunited. The history of Central Europe since the war also fascinates her. The sweep of her new novel, with the Shakespearean allusion and Czech lands in the title, is therefore enormous. From the final hours of the Second World War, with Czechs caught between fleeing Germans and arriving Russians, she takes us on a journey through the decade of terror which followed the consolidation of Communist power.

As families break apart, she follows the lives of two who escaped: aristocratic Count Michael to Austria, and middle-class Frantisek to England. As one generation succeeds another, and British philosophers try to give seminars in underground Prague, teenager Kate finds her Czech heritage a bore. Finally, in an emotional few pages, comes the liberation of 1989, which restores to wholeness a number of torn hearts.

In a way, the Central European story is too rich a meal for the novelist to feast on entirely, and Paton-Walsh seems right to set herself limits. She invents Czech-speaking Comenia, from where Michael had to abandon his purloined castle in the closing days of the war. What Shakespeare would have called a foundling is left behind.

However, a middlebrow saga ensues from this adaptation of history, one which could more aptly be called "A Castle in Bohemia". The bright, unironic speech the characters exchange undermines their creator's serious purpose. It also betrays her foreignness, not so much to Comenia as to evil. Characters who speak like this tell us we live in a nice world, whatever awfulnesses we may hear of. Counts are gracious, professors decent. Even being in a Communist prison has its compensations if, for the first time, you discover the Gospel.

Yet I take my hat off to Paton-Walsh for the way that, on a non-saga level, she takes on the difficult task of portraying character moving in history. Many writers find this ambition immensely hard to realise. Real people cannot be represented by the views they hold. Socialist Realism went down like a brick because it was full of single-minded idealists voicing their belief in Communism.

Early on, Paton-Walsh writes little passages of socialist realism because nothing else will come. Later, her 1980s teenagers destroy a valued relic with a Sartrean acte gratuit. So there is such a thing as moral choice. How to portray it?

Moral luck is a better idea, as expounded by the young philosopher, Rachel, who gets deported by the Prague police. Paton-Walsh follows recent historical sources too closely for my comfort here, but her choice of theme is original.

Perhaps the whole novel could have been about how being good, or being judged to be good, can rest on chance. An exile who escapes to England may feel he has missed his chance to stand up against Communism. But moral luck equally favours those who miss their maliciously aimed shots or (like the thuggish police chief) never get called to account. Altogether, the theory seems to capture something of the liberal anguish at being left out of the Central European action.

But the most moving moments happen when the characters are just plain lucky. When Frantisek gets a British visa, you want to weep; the salt-of-the earth types who help him in London probably exist, too. Only when the gypsies in the Comenian forest forswear petty thieving to lead the good where they need to go, and wish them right rather than luck, does Paton-Walsh again seem to be writing a fairy tale.

This book needs more cowardice and weakness and dullness at every level to make it real. I'm sorry to say it, but Jill Paton-Walsh is too much on the side of the angels.

Comments