The best books around the Cold War from a child of the Cold War

Simon Mawer Author Of Prague Spring
By Simon Mawer

The Books I Picked & Why

The Untouchable

By John Banville

Book cover of The Untouchable

Why this book?

John Banville is one of the finest writers in English alive today. It’s as simple as that. He is also one of the most versatile. Anyone who has read his impressionistic Booker Prizewinning novel The Sea will be startled to read The Untouchable, in which the author contrives to worm his way inside the minds of those famous traitors of the Cold War, the Cambridge spies. In the real world they included such figures as the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir (later stripped of his title) Anthony Blunt and the drunken diplomat Guy Burgess. Here they live again under the cover names of Viktor Maskell and ‘Boy’ Bannister. It is all related by Maskell himself. Prepare to be astonished at how convincing this act of impersonation is!

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

By John Le Carré

Book cover of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Why this book?

This book hardly needs introduction. When it first came out in 1963 it simply blew the absurdities of James Bond style espionage thrillers aside. Here was a novel, a real novel with all the attributes of character development, moral jeopardy and evocation of place, coupled with a brilliant and disconcerting plot. Live again the grim world of the Cold War, of divided Berlin and split loyalties. This is what spying must really be like. We’ve never really recovered from it!  

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

By Milan Kundera

Book cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Why this book?

One of the indisputably great novels of the twentieth century. Written with a deft and playful touch, The Unbearable Lightness of Being explores the lives of Tomáš, a promiscuous surgeon, his wife Tereza, his lover the anarchic artist Sabina, and her lover, the university lecturer Franz. Oh, and the dog Karenin. Set in the turbulent world of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring and the Russian invasion of August 1968 it deals with profound themes of existence and freedom in a tantalizing and provocative manner that fascinated readers when it first came out in 1984. You may watch the film but more than with most adaptations that comes nowhere near the book, which continues to thrill and challenge new readers.

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The Miracle Game

By Josef Skvorecky

Book cover of The Miracle Game

Why this book?

Is there a Czech theme going on here? Well, the Czech lands have always produced artists, musicians and writers of the highest calibre and although he may not be widely known, Škvorecký is one of them. From exile in Canada following the Russian invasion of 1968, he wrote this extraordinary and fantastic novel about a miracle (a holy statue is seen to bow its head) in a Czech village in the first year of communist rule. Of course such irrational things couldn’t be allowed and the priest is condemned as a hoaxer. But now we’re in 1968 and everything is up for discussion including this forgotten event. Seen through the eyes of the author’s picaresque character, Danny Smiřický (who was present at the original miracle but unfortunately had dozed off at the vital moment so never actually saw St Joseph move), the whole story is relived and discussed. Part farce, part fantasy, part satire, Škvorecký is polite to no one – not even Vaclav Havel – and laughs at everything. Very Czech! 

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Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir

By Svetlana Alliluyeva

Book cover of Twenty Letters to a Friend: A Memoir

Why this book?

Svetlana Alliluyeva was Josef Stalin’s daughter. In 1967 she fled to the West bringing this memoir with her. It was published to universal acclaim in the same year. An epistolary memoir it gives remarkable insight into her life growing up in the Kremlin. Haunting, at times lyrical, always affecting, she shows Stalin as something other than the monster we take him to be. She makes no excuses for him but it is salutary to see him portrayed as a father and a human being. An antidote to the all-too-easy dismissal of him as ‘a monster’.

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