Prague 1938 – Dara Kavanagh

Prague 1938 is literary fiction documenting the coming of age of a young man during the turbulent period before the second world war. Written in the first person and using the medium of memoir it explores every aspect of what it means to be Bohemian and to belong. Meticulous research is handled with delicacy and an unapologetic truthfulness that lends poignancy to the text.

To capture something indefinable of a past age is a goal of a good many literary novelists. I can think of any number who succeed in giving us a taste of days lost, and much historical entertainment relies on our complicity in ignoring the edges, the places of poor fit, the styrofoam cups on the table of our enjoyment: long may we continue to oblige.

This is something more. In this novel Dara Kavanagh captures the underlying, sickening, tension and uncertainty as Czechoslovakia fragments, and on this unsteady ground he takes his protagonist through his turbulent teenage years, dancing between a birth of desire and a search for truth. We are trapped as we travel with him, constantly assessing and reassessing relationships, trying to find the right way to be. There are no easy answers here and no ignoring the internal and external pressures. This is a novel of beauty and darkness and one of the best explorations of the young adult mind in recent contemporary fiction.

I’m aware as I write this that the novel could equally be seen as an elegy for home or an essay on the nature of evil, which as Auden states is unspectacular, and always human, sharing our bed and eating at our own table. There is no untangling the human heart. The word which springs to mind is “heft” but I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. The prose fairly dances along and – apart from the occasional misstep – it takes us with it effortlessly. I did have a small concern that a novel coming from a poet might have a tendency towards the overblown; it does not. There were passages with Proustian elegance but they recall him to mind like a song on the wind, a remembrance of things past.

We come to the criticisms. I have turned this over in my mind and only the one prevails. There are one or two passages of dialogue where the speakers are not adequately indicated, and these have a tendency to throw the rider out of the race and the reader out of his reverie. This is a shame, but in the scale of things – and this novel is written with some scale – it is almost too little to mention.

Prague 1938 is written by Dara Kavanagh and published by Dedalus books, 2021.

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