by Jeffrey Condran
|Counterpoint Press, 2014
Reviewed by Chris Duerr
I am delighted to write that upon first opening Prague Summer by Jeffrey Condran I had no idea what to expect. I say “delighted” because, having no familiarity with the real life Prague, there was no choice but to surrender myself as a tourist to the narrative voice, and soon found myself enthusiastically embarking on an adventure through the winding streets of the complex and eccentric city.
Prague Summer begins with the uncanny image of a woman falling to her death, painted for the reader in a baroque, melodic style that defines and enriches the entire novel:
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.
“Cinematic” is a term that often came to mind as I roamed Condran’s Prague, meeting his cast of curious and often offbeat characters, most of whom are early on revealed to be expatriates, lending a sort of natural flow to their enthusiastic observations which I was happy to share. The narrator, Henry, is a rare book dealer whose quips and factoids about his trade, and lines such as “It is always with Nabokov in mind that I remember my own first kiss” will no doubt delight each and every bibliophile.
He and his brilliant wife, Stephanie, pass their days immersed in the food, drink, and sights of a city that seems to be inhabited by a swirling global population of writers, artists, and bons vivants, which includes their friends Michael Leo and Anna Nemcova, an unconventional and money-troubled couple out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald daydream.
But the charming routine of cocktails and first editions cannot hold out when a long-time friend of Stephanie’s, Selma Al-Khateeb, comes to visit following the arrest of her husband Mansour by the FBI. In the words of Henry, “Imagine: our friend, a martyr to the War on Terror.” Without knowledge of his crime nor how long he could be detained, the emigrants have no choice but to comfort their friend and ponder life in a world shifting drastically around them, until Selma develops an idea for a justice all her own.
Jeffrey Condran’s Prague Summer is a perfect choice for readers of many stripes: mystery lovers, romantics, book collectors, previous visitors to Prague, would-be travelers, or simply admirers of well-constructed sentences, perfectly conveying time and place. The reader is aware from page one that the ancient city of the title is to be just as intriguing, witty, and sordid as any of the characters within. While visiting the New Town Hall to examine a copy of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of the Witches, Henry ponders the curious and bloody act of defenestration, once practiced where he stands. “Apparently, throwing people out of windows is a thing here, a fitting metaphor for the city’s political history.” Prague, one gathers, is a place of continuous, glorious upheaval where one cannot help but be swept along by the Vltava.
Truly enjoyable novels of place such as this are not built of landmarks and historical and political anecdotes alone. The essence of the city is captured brick by brick in its minutiae, so poignantly remarked upon by the ever-astute Henry. Early in the novel, Henry and Stephanie venture to a fashionable birthday party at the bookstore owned my Michael and Anna, to be attended by hobnobbing musicians, writers, filmmakers, and students from the world over. Amidst a traffic jam caused by “twentysomethings wearing nothing but jockstraps and curly neon-green wigs,” as his diplomatic wife frets over the arrival of her emotionally distraught friend Selma, Henry focuses on the “decorum” of a Czech beggar outside the car window. “The man crouches nearly prostrate on the ground, almost like a Muslim at prayer, his forehead resting on the pavement, his hands out before him in supplication. He speaks to no one, silent, his needs absolutely clear.” The chaos of the world does not stop for this man. Just like Henry, he is yet another piece of Prague’s intricate puzzle, but his solemnity in the face of his own desperation shows that buried beneath even the darkest streets of the city, in the depths of life’s unfairness and inequality, are the noblest hearts, attempting to survive.