When German troops invade Prague in March 1939 and proceed to tighten their grip on the city, 30-year-old Otylie Bartošová is forced to relinquish the two things she holds most dear: her husband, and an anonymous 18th-century sonata manuscript bequeathed to her by her father. Jakub disappears to join the underground resistance. In a similar act of defiance, Otylie splits up the manuscript — “her birthright and burden” — to keep it from falling into Nazi hands, and then flees the city.
Just over 60 years later, early into the new millennium, an elderly Czech immigrant living in Queens entrusts young musicologist Meta Taverner with the second movement of the sonata. Enchanted by the music and stimulated by the challenge of finding the other two “orphaned movements” and the identity of the composer, Meta turns her back on her studies and her skeptical boyfriend and sets off for Prague.
The city casts its spell and captivates Meta. But she becomes disillusioned after funds run dry, leads become dead ends, and some of her musical mentor’s contacts prove suspect. It is only when she meets, and falls for, Czech-American reporter Gerrit Mills that she discovers fresh purpose. The pair pool their resources and widen their search. However, they are closely tracked by other parties, including a former Communist Party stooge with friends in high places and an interest in the manuscript that in time turns into a toxic obsession.
More than 12 years in the making, and more than 500 pages, “The Prague Sonata” is without doubt Bradford Morrow’s magnum opus. It has echoes of his last novel, “The Forgers,” which focused on another couple making sense of past mysteries, this time through twists and turns in the antiquarian book world. In his new book, Morrow delves deeper and aims higher. He splices his main narrative with flashbacks to the war, to Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, and to Otylie’s years in exile in London and her new life in “strange sky-draped Texas.”
History is thrillingly re-enacted or re-created. Musical passages are conveyed with lyrical grace. Regular doses of surprise and suspense keep us immersed and involved.
Books of this length are seldom fault-free. Morrow is a little too fond of his musical metaphors. Finely sprinkled Czech words and phrases authenticate the drama but entire random sentences in Czech, followed promptly by their English translation, are an unnecessary distraction. And for such a capacious novel, the Prague that is portrayed is a place of curiously tight confines: a restrictively small toy-town where nobody lives or ventures beyond the picture-postcard center.
These gripes aside, “The Prague Sonata” is compulsively enjoyable. It offers intrigue and excitement while at the same time shrewdly examining the transformative power of music and the good and the bad sides of human nature. As Otylie tells us, “politics and plunderers” eventually fade, but “the best of what people forge with their imagination persists. More than persists, thrives.”
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Prague Sonata
By: Bradford Morrow.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press, 512 pages, $27.