the story begins in Poland, the book covers three main timelines in the history
of Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic. The first is the Second World War where
Jaroslav, originally a correspondent for a newspaper is escaping Danzig by train
and trying to get to Warsaw, where he wants to meet his partner Jan. Jaroslav,
always one for getting that last picture or story, antagonizes his friend with
his careless attitude and disregard for his own life. Needless to say as they
leave Warsaw with the borders quickly closing, their dash for freedom is both
hair-raising and dangerous.
Somehow making it back to England, Jaroslav
meets a pretty ordinance factory worker called Alice during an air raid in London
and their relationship blossoms from here. However, Jaroslav is not the character
he seems and is a womaniser and a scoundrel, as we are soon to find out. Working
for the Intelligence Corps he is sent on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines,
along with his close friend Jan, where he also meets and gets entangled with another
pretty woman called Libuse.
during the liberation of Paris in August 1944, he has a brief but significant
encounter with a French woman called Claudine. In the next scene we see Claudine
arriving in Prague bearing Jaroslav's child, but Jaroslav is nowhere to be found.
We now jump to one of the most well known periods of Czech History.
The date is 29 July 1968 and the Warsaw Pact countries are poised on the borders
ready to invade, dubbed the Prague Spring, Dubcek and his government race to the
Slovak border town of Cierna-nad-Tisou where almost the entire Soviet Politburo
arrive in an armoured train as they try and patch up the two country's differences.
Meanwhile, Jaroslav and Claudine's son Václav, who was brought up by his
Uncle Josef, is about to marry Sabina but they have nowhere to live.
Václav and Sabina have two children from their very happy marriage, Pavel
and Magda. The marriage is a stark contrast to the relationships otherwise described
in the book, which are stormy to say the least.
The next part of the
story centres around five main characters: Daniela, Ivan, Nada, Pavel and Klima.
Daniela is married
to Klima, but it is a very unhappy marriage and Klima mistreats and abuses his
wife both physically and psychologically. Made to work as a waitress in a cheap
bar she meets and falls in love again with her old flame Ivan, who is disorganized
and thoughtless, however, a breath of fresh air compared to her violent relationship
with her husband.
The past is not far behind and a murder incident that
Ivan and Daniela were unintentional witnesses to six years previously rears its
ugly head when a suspect is arrested. The narrative, which gives insight into
the justice system and politics since the Velvet Revolution, lingers and torments
both Daniela and Ivan's every waking hour, especially after she runs away from
her dissolute husband. Daniela recalls passages of Kafka's works as she tries
to make sense of what is happening around her.
and Pavel are an item, though Pavel used to go out with Nada's older sister Krista.
Nada is a dark creature and a Jewess, and is constantly haunted by the past. She
studied European history and for her dissertation wrote a significant work on
Adolf Hitler's life. She also has a particular fascination for Hitler's relationship
with Geli Raubal, his niece. With narrative referring to the OSS (Office of Strategic
Studies) papers that she studied at university on Hitler's psychological profile,
we begin to see her reflections on the darker side of human nature.
One late night, after meeting her estranged husband in a crowded bar to try to
resolve the legal details of their broken relationship, Daniela disappears without
trace and a frantic search now begins.
Meanwhile Uncle Josef has been
reunited with Claudine, Václav's mother, but he has a desperate secret
that he cannot bring himself to tell her. Instead, on a train journey back to
Prague he fills her head with stories and parables, which at times she thinks
are both fascinating and silly.