Friday, September 04, 2009

Europe view 144 summer reading



Summer reading

Aug 6th 2009

Investigations, analyses and a rediscovered novel

NOTHING happens in eastern Europe during August, save the odd war, coup or financial collapse, so people interested in the region have a whole month to catch up on good books, old and new. This summer brings a crop that should keep even a speed reader busy. “Revolution 1989”, by Victor Sebestyen, offers a digestible and colourful history of that miraculous year. Andrew Roberts’s “The Storm of War”, is a rare example of a British writer giving the second world war's eastern front proper prominence. “Londongrad: From Russia with Cash,” (pictured below) by Mark Hollingsworth and Stewart Lansley, is a racy and alarming investigation of the effect of Russian money on Britain.

At the more specialist end of the spectrum, Tom Gallagher’s new book about Romania and the EU—subtitled “How the weak vanquished the strong”—gives a bleak and gripping account of how wily ex-communist bureaucrats bamboozled the outside world and swindled their own people. Those who read his previous book, the excellent “Theft of a Nation”, will know what to expect. Espionage aficionados will enjoy the densely written but convincing “Spies” by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, which tells the (true) story of KGB activities in North America.

Your columnist flirted with some ambitious ideas such as rereading Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, or finishing the Miklos Banffy trilogy about aristocratic life in pre-communist Transylvania. What he actually ended up packing was a newly republished (by Faber & Faber) edition of William Palmer’s neglected 1990 classic, “The Good Republic”. Good contemporary fiction about the region is rare (Tibor Fischer’s “Under the Frog” is an exception). Corny spy thrillers, littered with topographical howlers, unlikely plots and plonking sex scenes, are the standard fare.

Mr Palmer’s book set a standard for an east European historical novel that has yet to be matched—an especially impressive feat for an outsider.

It is mainly set during the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in 1939-40, so this year’s anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact makes it highly topical. Even more vivid than the deportations and executions are the descriptions of the swift decay of statehood and legality: the policeman trampled by pro-Soviet demonstrators, civil servants struggling to uphold the constitution, the sinister placemen issuing instructions, the president a prisoner in his palace. Then comes the Soviet retreat and the Nazi occupation—a sinister non-liberation, bringing a terrible fate to the Jewish population, and a moral abyss for those who directly or indirectly abet it.

All this comes as flashbacks, seen through the eyes of the young Jacob Balthus. At the start of the book he is a Baltic émigré in London, who has spent decades running the pointless and, by the 1980s, almost defunct “Congress of Exiles”. He returns at the invitation of the nascent pro-democracy movement in his homeland, where his father was a senior civil servant in the days of interwar independence.

The fractious and futile-seeming life of east European émigré organisations is well drawn, as is the trembling excitement of the late 1980s when once-forbidden contacts were first permitted and then flourished. But even better is the description of the (composite) pre-war Baltic country in which the young Balthus grows up, so solid from his point of view, so terrifyingly fragile for his wise, well-informed father.

Remarkably, Mr Palmer did not visit the Baltic states before writing the book; his research mainly consisted of reading transcripts of evidence given to congressional hearings by senior Baltic figures who had escaped to the West. It is a tribute to his novelist’s skills that anyone reading the book has the feeling of complete authenticity in both history and geography. Readers are left longing for a sequel.

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