An expansive, multigenerational novel about Western Europe that takes on the big questions.
Besides being a novelist, Pehe is a political analyst and was an adviser to Czech President Václav Havel. This is the second novel in an ambitious trilogy, the first to be translated into English (by Turner). In Wim Wenders’ acclaimed film Wings of Desire, set in West Berlin, unseen angels watch over their human charges. Here, an angel, Ariel, visits three generations of a Czech family, the Brehmes, from the late 19th century to the early 21st. Pehe’s wide-ranging story touches on two world wars, the Holocaust, Soviet expansionism and its demise, ending in New York City on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In the first part, Ariel instructs Joseph Brehme to write a long letter to his mother, who abandoned him when he was 6. It’s 1940; he’s 40 years old. We learn he grew up in “two linguistic worlds” (Czech/German) and studied music and violin in the bustling, creative Prague of Jaroslav Hašek, Max Brod, and Alfons Mucha. He fought in a Czech brigade in 1914 and lost two fingers. Part 2 opens in 1968 during the Prague Spring. Hanna, Joseph’s daughter, is confined to a psychiatric hospital. Under Ariel’s influence, she takes pen to paper to tell her harrowing story of being taken in by Jewish grandparents and hiding to escape the German occupation of Prague. As Hanna writes, “I must…most of all try to explain it.” Her section is highly affecting and well-drawn. The third part, weakest of the three, opens in 2001. Hanna’s son, Alex, a famous, disillusioned American professor, feels Ariel’s influence in the guise of his girlfriend, Leira. His diary completes Pehe’s powerful saga of this Czech family.
Set against the complex, turbulent political and cultural tableau of central Europe, Pehe’s sweeping novel confronts the existential questions concerning God’s existence and man’s brutality to man.