Zdena Salivarova is one of the great women of Czech and Canadian literature. In 1971, she and her husband Joseph Skvorecky established 68 Publishers in Toronto, Canada to publish works by Slovak and Czech authors banned in Czechoslovakia. Milan Kundera, Nobel Laureat Jaroslav Seifert and Bohumil Hrabal were among the authors published by the firm. Joseph Skvorecky achieved great fame as a writer in the English speaking world but Zdena Salivarova did not.Summer in Prague is one of two books by Salivarova available in English. It is well worth reading as a means of getting to know better the work of this extraordinary woman.
Hanzlova the heroine of Summer in Prague is an irrepressible twenty-one year old screwball who works as a chorine with the Daisy Chorus of Song and Dance, a somewhat inept vaudeville troop based in Prague. Hanzlova is a great character who has a motor mouth, a sharp eye and an inventive wit that constantly entertains the reader who is hauled along through her chaotic and difficult life.The novel begins in the early summer of 1953. At the very last moment Honzlova is dropped from a tour to Hungary and is forced to work through the summer at the troupes office.
Honzlova is surprised at being blacklisted because she had been allowed the previous year to travel with the Chorus to France where she had created no problems. However, she knows that several factors are working against her. Her father has fled the country to North America and her brother is in a forced labour camp. Even worse she refuses either to become an informer or to join the communist party.During the first week after the Daisy Chorus has left for Hungary, the cleaning woman dies and is replaced by another woman who appears to be an informer placed there to create a file on Honzlova in order to justify dismissing her.
A game of Good Cop - Bad Cop begins that will be played with increasing intensity through-out the entire novel:Bad Cop: You are uncooperative comrade. You are lucky that you are still working in our troupe.Good Cop: If you join comrade the other party members will not be able to bully you.Bad Cop: Your voice is not as good as you think it is. Why should we let you sing a solo.Good Cop: All you have to do is sign and you will get the parts you deserve.Bad Cop: You are a troublemaker.Good Cop: The party can only become good if good people like you join.And it so it goes.
However, our heroine is not easily intimidated and refuses to give ground.Other plot lines begin that thread in between the threatening and cajoling of the party members. Father Kruno who once was in love with Honzlova appears on the scene. She attempts unsuccesfully to seduce him but does manager to convince him to baptize her as she demonstrates a certain sincerity in her beliefs.The focus next switches to Honzlovas family. Her mother faces tremendous challenges providing for a family with an absentee husband. One son is in a prison camp. A second son is doing his military service while the third is still at home where he is the apple of his sisters eye.
Honzlova has a mean-spirited older sister who has left the family apartment and a somewhat dimwitted younger sister who manages to get pregnant at the age of 15 years. As the family careens from crisis to crisis, the pressure steadily increases on Honzlova to become an informer.In the last quarter of the book, the misfortunes start to compound. It becomes quite clear that she will lose her job and then her younger brother dies in an accident. The breezy and indomitable Honzlova loses her will to fight on. A fellow worker arrives in her apartment with a passport telling her that she must leave Czechoslovakia because she will never be happy there.
As the novel closes are greatly saddened heroine is in a quandary as to what to do. The family member closest to her has died. The man she loves has become a priest and the decision to fire her has already been taken. However, the offer of the passport could be trap in which case she will go to jail.Summer in Prague is on balance a very good book.
Zdena Salivarova has a great eye for detail and gives a remarkable portrait of life in Central Europe during the era when the masses of people who were not in the communist party were subject to constant bullying by those who were. My chief reservation is that there is a great inconsistency between the sparkling humour of the first three quarters of the book and the tremendous gloom of the last quarter. It is to me as if the author combined two novels in one when she should have written two.Nonetheless, Summer Prague is worth reading because of its brilliant portrayal of a very bad time in the history of Central Europe.
The description of the process through which informers and party members are recruited is the best that I have ever read.