Review of Helen Notzl’s Long Journey Home – A Prague Love Story
By Karen Alison, Author, Editor, Blogger
At age four, Helen Notzl made a daring escape with her mother and brother from the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. But that was only the beginning of Notzl’s adventures in this passionate, forthright and harrowing memoire.
This is a book about the search for home, family, belonging, and the quest to love and be loved. In many ways, it’s a quintessentially Canadian story – the author grew up in a safe environment where she was educated and had the physical needs of life satisfied, yet she longed for the people, places and language of the country she was forced to leave behind – food for the soul.
In adulthood, Helen set out to reconnect with that world, and returned to Prague. In those days, visiting the historic city was not a simple matter of booking a ticket and finding a hotel. Notzl wanted to live in Prague and was soon forced to confront the bizarre capriciousness of the communist officials – a terrifying cat-and-mouse game in which she was expected to become a spy in exchange for a permit to stay in the country.
After the freedom of life in Canada, the environment of fear in Prague was a shock, full of unexpected restrictions and dangers. Notzl was almost arrested by two plainclothes policemen for singing “Summertime” while she was walking down the street. Being Canadian, she was released, but for Czech citizens the repercussions were severe for equally innocent activities.
Notzl pulls no punches in this beautifully-written book. She unflinchingly details many harsh realities of the regime that almost destroyed her country of birth, and the cruelty and nepotism that turned the thriving Czech culture and economy into a shambles of apathy, suspicion and neglect.
Despite the obstacles, Helen was able to make a life for herself in Prague, and find her extended family. Their warm and loving response was a testament to the fact that even the worst regime cannot completely destroy the bonds of blood.
And she discovered friends in Prague who refused to submit to the Communist ideology: artists, writers and others who looked for ways to express their creativity, find joy in life, and keep their spirits alive under soul-deadening conditions – the true Bohemians. She fell in love and began a relationship with Karel, an artist, who might have become her husband.
But the political regime had other ideas and, for the terrible crime of loving a Czech citizen, Helen was given one day to put her affairs in order before choosing between the equally unattractive options of being thrown out of the country or going to jail for an unspecified length of time. (There’s more to that story, but you’ll have to read the book to learn about it.)
This bitter separation created havoc in the lives of both Helen and Karel, with painful consequences that played out over years. Karel was ultimately betrayed not only by his country but by his own family.
Helen, returning to Canada, was more fortunate. After a period of devastation, she created a loving marriage with Walter Keyser, a Canadian businessman, whom she met while they worked on her project to found the Pauline McGibbon Cultural Centre. Never one to be idle, Notzl developed a successful international career as a coach while raising a son with Walter. Even so, she was continually haunted by her love for Karel, Prague, and the Czechoslovakia that had been stolen from her not just in childhood, but again, in adulthood.
Notzl is a keen observer, particularly of emotional realities. Her memoire is filled with rich detail and reads like a novel – a tense thriller that had me anxiously turning pages to find out what would happen next.
This is not a memoire for the faint-of-heart. Long Journey Home is both a frank love story and a searing indictment of oppression and bullying in all their forms – political, sexual, social, and relational. It is a celebration of independence of thought and life choices – and a call to risk the heart to live life to its fullest.