Duck Duck Book

34 – desert in bohemia
06.25.2006, 12:02 am
Filed under: fiction

A desert in Bohemia / Jill Paton Walsh.
New York : St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
[MCL call number: FICTION; four copies, no holds]

The chaos and turmoil that accompanies wartime allows a for a great deal of shifting of accepted roles and social patterns. When nearly everything normal is disrupted, some people take advantage of their neighbors, some rise to heroism or bravery unexpectedly, some withdraw from their former responsibilities, some rejoice in the opportunity to remake themselves entirely — the range of responses is wide.

A Desert in Bohemia opens during a period of intense upheaval just at the end of the Second World War, when German soldiers have withdrawn from their occupation of central Europe and Russian soldiers are arriving as vanquishers. There is essentially no government, no social order other than what people can forge in their relations with other people near them, and the questions of what people will eat and how they will shelter are of primary importance to nearly everyone.

The story begins as one by one, several people seek the shelter of a large castle abandoned by retreating German soldiers. First a woman who remembers nothing other than a massacre that she has managed to walk away from unharmed, then a sweet-tempered idealistic young partisan, then his comrades and their severe and manipulative field commander, then the young Count who would, if not for the war, be lord of the castle. As the book progresses, these people and their loved ones grow older and live lives picked apart by the changes of history and circumstance, and we follow them through forty-five years of family life, politics, idealism, education, disillusionment, intimacy, and detachment.

A Desert in Bohemia is about European history, certainly — it is a story of war and ideology and political pressure and national identity and culture, and it is also the story of certain people’s lives and relationships — but at the center it is a story of what these individual people do with the chances they have been given. How do they bend, when do they break, where is their grace, when are they unlikely heroes, and when do they hold each other back? How do they navigate through the impossible choices they face, and what do they do with the results of choosing? One of the things the book is about is this question of moral luck — what happens when people are faced with situations in which circumstances well beyond their control make them heroes or shameful traitors? Are they more heroic, or more traitorous, than those who have not been similarly cornered? Are they more virtuous, or more despicable, than others who by sheer chance were not forced to choose sides, who were not compelled to judge what it is acceptable to give up and what it is acceptable to give things up for?

* * *

(For more on the question of moral luck, see my review of Thomas Nagle’s essay “Moral Luck,” below.)

Paton Walsh has written several other worthwhile novels for adults — one that I particularly liked is Knowledge of Angels (Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1993) — for young children and for teens, as well as a series of mysteries written for adults (staring Imogen Quy, who works as a nurse for a Cambridge college).

She is also noted for being brave enough to take on the task of completing Dorothy L. Sayers’ unfinished novel, Thrones, Dominations (New York : St. Martin’s Press, c1998), during which Sayers’ perfectly imperfect sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey and his new wife, mystery writer Harriet Vane, solve a murder while coping with the anxieties of their young marriage and the death of King George V. Paton Walsh followed Thrones, Dominations with another Wimsey/Vane novel, A Presumption of Death (New York : St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2003), this one written from notes, rather than from an incomplete manuscript. Both “collaborative” novels are worthwhile for lovers of Sayers, Wimsey, and Vane, but for the rest of you, I’d recommend starting with the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Whose Body? (many publishers, dates).


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