A British-American journalist wrestles with his parents’ demons, taking him back to Cold War–era Prague.
Laurence’s memoir chronicles the period during which he and his family lived in Prague, the late 1950s. His father was serving as an officer in the British Foreign Office, and his glamorous mother had an affair with a Czech playboy and impresario who was also collaborating with the Communist police. During this time, the author’s sister, Kate—she was eight when they arrived in 1957, he was seven—developed anorexia and began a dangerous see-sawing cycle of weight loss that ruined her health and caused her untimely death in 2000. Laurence chases, but never adequately answers, the question, what really happened to Kate in Prague? The “social agent” of the title, and fulcrum of the story, was an attractive man the family met in Prague—Jirí Mucha, who had escaped the German invasion of Czechoslovakia during the war, aided the British, spent time in prison after the Soviets took Czechoslovakia and, according to files the author recently found, spied for the Communist state in order to maintain his fabulous lifestyle. This included Mucha’s accomplished wife, Geraldine, whom the author was able to visit in Prague when she was nearly 90; numerous mistresses (orgies were hinted at, involving teenaged girls); and professional seductions, such as the British attaché’s wife, Mrs. Laurence. The author hints at many dark secrets that are left unexplored, such as the deep resentment he feels toward his mother—revealed in one shocking confrontation between them as the father lay dying—and the espionage angle serves as a pretense to investigate a much deeper family wound.
Strong writing barely illuminates the murky narrative.