British author Nigel Peace has just published a powerful love story set against the background of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact. The novel is based on the author’s own personal experience of being torn apart from his first love by the communist regime. I spoke to Nigel Peace shortly before his new book came out, about his memories of the time and what made him write his soul-searching novel half a century later.
“In 1968 I was just 18 years old. I’d had a very traditional upbringing in England which means that I knew practically nothing about the real world. I knew nothing about politics and I probably knew even less about girls. And the only thing I knew about Czechoslovakia was that the name kept appearing in the newspapers. To be quite honest, I didn’t even know where Czechoslovakia was. I was so immature. But then the most wonderful thing happened. I was taking a short holiday in July with my best friend from school before we went to university. And one day on the beach, I saw this lovely young woman. Somehow my energy reached out towards her, and hers reached out towards me and we met in the middle. And I found myself falling completely, undeniably in love for the first time. So, all of this was wonderful. The only trouble was – she was Czech. And of course, the Prague Spring, at this point, was in deep trouble. She knew things were bad back home and she felt she had to go home to be with her family and she loved her country, of course. So this thing had happened between us and suddenly we found ourselves –not only me having to grow up very fast – but we had to make some life-changing decisions.”
“It was dreadful. I am sure your listeners can imagine, just on a purely personal level. You meet somebody very special, you know that this is deeply important and then two weeks later you have to let go and you don’t know if you are ever going to meet again.”
But the relationship was so special that you came to Czechoslovakia later, did you not?
“That was a long time later, because I was not able or allowed to follow her at first. She got there with terrible timing - just as the 750,000 troops and 8,000 planes and 6,500 tanks also arrived and she found herself trapped. It was a chaotic time. Of course the Czech and Slovak people were putting up a wonderful resistance as best as they could – there was no possibility of an armed resistance of course, but at the same time nobody quite knew what was going on. There were Soviet sympathizers around and Eva –which is the name I have given her in the book –found that it was very difficult to trust people and she didn’t know quite what to do. She wanted to come back to Britain, if she could. Eventually she did manage to do that through the underground, she had student connections. So she came back to Britain, but that was a few months later. Meanwhile, I had started at university and I was suffering grief and loneliness because I didn’t know if I would ever see her again. But she did come back and we started to try to make a life together. But then, to cut a long story short, she was tricked into going back again because her family didn’t really tolerate our relationship and we were interfered with by the secret police on both sides in Britain as well as with Czechoslovakia…”
“I wasn’t allowed to. So once again we found ourselves in that situation of not knowing if we would see each other again and when she went back the second time the borders were entirely closed –this was 1969. Anyway, she managed it one more time a few months later –she came to Britain and we spent time together. In the book it is all condensed to one year, but in real life our relationship lasted for three and a half years. By the time I finished university things had eased a little bit in your country and I was allowed to visit her family. It was my first visit to Prague, which is the most extraordinarily beautiful city and my favourite city in the world. This was in early 1972. But that was where things went very badly wrong for us, thanks to the Russians and the relationship had to end at that point.”
How did the visit to this country –the experience –change you? Did it give you greater insight into the fact that political pressure could influence interpersonal relationships even within a family? You were exposed to fears you would never have known in Britain.
The purpose of writing the book is – it’s a hymn to love, not only between young people, individuals, but also love for one’s country.
“That is the most insightful and important question of the whole story and it is why I have now written this book. As I said, back fifty years ago I was very immature, not knowing much about the world, but especially, I had no conception of how extraordinarily hard Eva’s upbringing was in the totalitarian years of communist control before the Prague Spring. I simply did not realize what she had gone through and what she was prepared to give up for me, because she was prepared to come back to Britain and be with me. And it took a long time, first of all to get over the extraordinary sadness of losing her and a lot of hindsight and maturity for me to realize that I was quite a big idiot back then, because I did not understand her feelings as deeply and thoughtfully as she deserved.”
Did you ever regret not trying to make a go of it, even with all the odds against you?
“I do regret it. The trouble was that in 1972 I was still young, I was immature and we were given an ultimatum by the Russian commander of her region – we had to get married, if we wanted to be together and we had to do it immediately. That was the only way she was going to be allowed to leave the country and I would not be allowed to stay anyway. So we were given this ultimatum and it was just an impossible situation. You are absolutely right, I could have made a huge leap of faith and trust at that point. I didn’t. Maybe I was too weak and immature…”
It was a foreign, frightening world what you saw here…
“It was. I was very fearful and I have learnt a great deal since then. Obviously our lives have gone in different directions since then. A lot of time has passed and a lot of thinking has taken place. So the purpose of writing the book is – it’s a hymn to love, not only between young people, individuals, but also love for one’s country. And I have the deepest respect and love for the Czechoslovak people. I have started to make Czechoslovak friends over here in Britain now, they are wonderful people and my book is a way of trying to put things right.”
“Haunted is exactly the right word. I wouldn’t say that it has ruined my life, of course not. I have had many other wonderful experiences, I have had a wonderful career, known great people, I have a family. So I cannot regret my life at all. But what I do regret is the pain that I must have caused to Eva and I regret my own weakness when I was a very young man. But, hey, we are human, we all have weaknesses, we all make decisions that could have been different. We must accept them and learn from them. And I think what I did learn –in time - was to become stronger, to become more sensitive to others and to be prepared to take risks in life and that’s what we all have to do.”
Why did it take you so long to write the book?
“Well, I wrote the first draft of it a few years after the event. It was something of an obsession for me at the time I suppose and I thought that would be healing –and it was to some extent. But then I put it away because you know how it is - life takes over and you have to provide for your family and be involved in other things. Time passed and I realized that the big anniversary was coming up and thought that this would be a good opportunity to make a strong statement. So last year I went back to it and rewrote it. Of course, I had the advantage of the Internet as well now so that I could research and make sure I got the facts right. There is a great deal about the actual invasion and its aftermath in the book – a true description of all of the events, as well as the events in England. And I could put a lot more real facts and situations into the book to make it come more alive. So the book is now, I hope, so much better than that first early draft. And this seems to be just the right time to publish it and to make my statement to Eva and the Czechoslovak people.”
Why is it called Broken Sea?
“Do you know, I don’t quite know. Partly it is the image of the waves of the sea that come at more or less regular intervals, but then they gather in strength –until there is a huge, stronger energetic wave. This idea is expressed by the cover of the book which is a famous painting by Ivan Ajvazovskij a Russian 19th century painter and the metaphor is that in our own personal lives small changes come along at intervals until suddenly the energy builds up to something very strong and some great change breaks into our lives and changes us completely and that is what Eva did to me. She was the great wave, the great energy that meant my life was never going to be the same again.”
We are human, we all have weaknesses, we all make decisions that could have been different.
This is a question I must ask because all our listeners – all your readers – will be wondering what happened to Eva – have you stayed in touch?
“I didn’t stay in touch with her – it was too painful. My mother did, she was a traditional English lady who loved to write letters and she also loved Eva – Eva had become part of our family – so my mother stayed in touch, but didn’t tell me until years later. So I do know that Eva married a nice Czech man and has two children and that’s pretty much as much as I know. It wouldn’t be right for me to interfere with her life in any way now. She has her life and I have mine, but I hope that by writing the book I am reaching out to say thank you to her and I am sorry for the pain that I might have caused and for not understanding what she and the Czech and Slovak people have experienced.”
Broken Sea was published on August 14th by Local Legend.
New flats in Prague increasingly out of reach
Lidice – the tragic fate of a village that became a powerful symbol
Largest protest since 1989 on Prague’s Wenceslas square as battle rages on for the PM’s political future
Czech politicians condemn draft Russian bill as attempt to rewrite history
Embattled Czech PM launches counter-offensive to win over public in Agrofert dispute