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In the past few decades, a logical pattern by which writers translate historical events into the written word has evolved.
First, there are the instant accounts--the "I was there to see it all" stories, the news compilations, the inside scoops.
Some, often many, months later, there are the scholarly analyses. Competing and complementing scholars attempt to frame the debate after carerful highbrow consideration. Theories abound. A School of Thought may even emerge.
And finally, through the undefinable creative process, the ultimate analysis appears. Literature.
The Magic Lantern:
The Revolution of '89
Witnessed in Warsaw,
Budapest, Berlin and Prague
By Timothy Garton Ash
156 pages; $17.95
In the eight months since the "revolutions" of Eastern Europe, publishers have flooded the market with instant account books, some better than others. The scholarly books are just beginning to appear, playing to a limited academic audience. And the "literature of 1989" has for the most part, not yet arrived.
But in the scant months since those monumental events, Timothy Garton Ash has produced a work which brings out the best aspects of all three genres. The Magic Lantern is at once sensational, scholarly and literary.
Ash has compiled five essays of his own first-person accounts of the East European "refolutions," as he calls them. The first four essays recount the changes in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. The fifth attempts to summarize his observations and draw some conclusions from the first four chapters.
The book's first-person essays get progressively better, longer and more elaborate. Ash's accounts begin in warsaw in 1980, where as an observing historian, he met opposition leaders Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik even before Solidarity became a household world in the West.
Although Ash successfully conveys the unprecedented nature of an active opposition to East Bloc regime, he fails to adequately explain the dynamics of the early Solidarity movement--why it started and why the opposition wasn't stronger.
No one can blame Ash for failing to explain the beginnings of the antidomino effect. But in this, the weakest essay of the five, he at least could have mused in a more explanatory way.
The second section succeeds precisely where the first one fails, as Ash traces the changes in Hungary to the statesanctioned reburial of 1956-hero Imre Nagy. By acknowledging his enemy, Ash explains from the streets of Budapest, Janos Kadar, a darling of the West, made his own rule an unresolvable paradox. The ensuing changes were inevitable.
With Ash's essay from Budapest, we begin to see the true beauty of his accounts--he explains the logistics of the democratic movements in such a way that each step naturally proceeds from the last. Although no one claims to have predicted the changes in Eastern Europe, Ash's hindsight makes the refolutions seem completely logical, almost obvious. In an historical era that almost defies prediction, this is an unusually helpful perspective.
After Budapest, Ash's accounts get even better. In describing the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, he avoids the melodrama that has plagued so many other accounts. He tells of one German man who crossed the East-West border several times, just for the hell of it. And he tells of thousands of East Berliners, picking up their 100 Deutschmarks "greeting money" and going shopping for the first time:
It is very difficult to describe the quality of this experience because what they actually did was so stunningly ordinary. In effect, they just took a bus from Hackney or Dagenham to Piccadilly Circus, and went shopping in the West End. Berliners walked the streets of Berlin. What could be more normal. And yet, what could be more fantastic! 'Twenty-eight years and ninety-one days,' says one man in his late thirties...Twenty-eight years and ninety-one days since the building of the Wall.
Almost half of this brief 150-page book is dedicated to Ash's experiences in Prague, where he witnessed the formation of the opposition movement firsthand and up-close. His precise analysis of the Czechoslovakian refolution won him acclaim within opposition circles and is equally brilliant in hindsight: "In Poland it took ten years," Ash explains. "In Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!"
Although the ten-day prediction was a bit optimistic, Ash was in the ballpark. He gives a day-by-day account of the formation of the opposition Civic Forum, the mass demonstrations in the streets of Prague, and the rapid ascension of playwright Vaclav Havel from dissident to president.
The Civic Forum, the coalition opposition group, managed the nowdubbed Velvet Revolution from, of all places, a theatre called the "Magic Lantern." Ash brilliantly juxtaposes the gravity of the political situation with the ironic humor of Havel and his band of writers, artists, economists and politicians. He tells of how his press credentials bore Havel's personal stamp--"a beaming pussy cat with the word 'Smile' across his chest!" A second credential bears a stamp with a beaming green frog and the words tres bien.
From the inside, Ash conveys the feeling that he and the ragtag bunch of reformers are truly in Revolution Central. At the same time, he demonstrates the agitated spontaneity with which the rapid changes occurred, the wondrous transfer of power from "the castle" to the Magic Lantern.
Throughout his personal essays, Ash inserts historical background that is immensely readable, his narration frequently benefiting from personal experience. But Ash's brilliance as a scholar and as an historian shines through in his final essay, in which he attempts to make sense of the amazing scenes depicted in the previous chapters.
Although he proposes a variety of extremely plausible theories, Ash aptly summarizes his personal explanation in three words--"Gorbachev, Helsinki and Tocqueville." The combination of Soviet liberalization, a internationally respected code of human rights and the lack of a coherent right to rule, he explains, set the stage for revolutions from both above and below.
Ash does not try to form a coherent theory of political transformation in Eastern Europe. He does pretend to have all the answers. But, at the very least, he asks all the right questions.
The addition of this historical analysis makes The Magic Lantern a unique work. With his first-person accounts, Ash has combined the insider style of non-fiction bestsellers with astute historical analysis and a truly literary knack for storytelling.
No doubt it was difficult for Ash to produce a historical work of this quality so soon after the events being studied.
But just as Tocqueville did with "The End of the Old Regime," and Marx did with "The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte," Ash ably combined factual accounts and theoretical analysis into an extremely readable product. And in doing so, he has created a work of instant history.
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