Review: Three Faces of an Angel

Prague perspective on life, love and death


By Jiri Pehe
Jantar Publishing, £18

You do not have to twist yourself into an avant garde posture to read this book. It is a straightforward novel in successive voices about the tribulations of the past century, from a Czech point of view. You could say Bohemian, because the echt profile of that country is mixed, in language and ethnicity.

Are generations of the Brehme family, who paint this triptych, German, Jew or Slavic Czech? All, in part; and that is pertinent to the book's moral as well as its plot and structure.

The first panel comprises a never-sent letter from a young man to a mother who abandoned him. She is Czech, his absent father German. Taken in by a Prague teacher, he becomes an accomplished violinist.

Then the First World War arrives, propelling him, in a Czech brigade, as far as Siberia, where he is trapped between the Whites and Reds of Russia's revolution. By the time he gets back to Prague he has had two fingertips blown off and fathered a child whom he will never see.

Amid all the sex, politics, philosophy, the great questions still arise

Unable to perform music, he finds happiness in marriage to a beautiful Jewish woman, with whom he has two further children. When she dies birthing twins, he commits suicide.

The second panel is narrated by his daughter, who, with her brother, is taken in by maternal grandparents. Being Jews, they are forced to hide in a cellar but are betrayed to the Gestapo. The grandparents are dispatched to death, but one of the German officers turns out to be a Brehme, unknown half-brother to the children's father, so they are spared.

After the war, the girl returns to Prague, where the descent into Communism brings new trouble, impelling her in and out of psychiatric wards. Following the loss of her lover and fearing her 13-year-old son's prospects if tied to her, she commits suicide during the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring.

The third panel belongs to this son, now a celebrity professor in 21st-century America. Dismayed by the narcissism and triviality of his milieu, he returns to Prague where, brooding over the fate of his antecedents, he begins to wonder if, like them, he is not being directed by some uncanny spirit - his grandfather called it Ariel and saw it alternately as a Guardian Angel or Angel of Death, but might it not be an Angel of Peace? Why do we do what we do? Is there divine intention? If so, does it make errors, like computer glitches?

Amid piquant tableaux of sex, politics and philosophy in our near past, this ambitious, impressive book does not evade the great questions.

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