BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Taste of Ashes’

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THE TASTE OF ASHES: THE AFTERLIFE OF TOTALITARIANISM IN EASTERN EUROPE
By Marci Shore
Crown Publishers, $27, 382 pages

One never lives happily ever after. The scars of living do not erode. When viewing Eastern Europe after World War II, Marci Shore proves this dictum. Ms. Shore, who teaches history at Yale, focuses on events in Eastern Europe in her latest book, “The Taste of Ashes.” In it, she forgoes the normal chronological order of writing and instead offers kaleidoscopic cuts of scenes that, by the end of the book, merge into a composite whole. This makes the book impressionistic and not very cohesive, but lively and interesting.

The book begins with the author’s first venture into Eastern Europe in 1994 while still an undergraduate. She visits the Czech Republic to improve her knowledge of the language she was studying at college and to see the country. English teachers are in great demand, and she applies for a position. There are no openings in Prague, but she is offered a job as a high school teacher in Domazlice, a town nearby. There she interacts with the local population and makes lasting friendships with other visiting teachers, but an odd incident occurs that affects her entire stay.

The furnace in the school building failed in the middle of winter. It had been the rule for students entering the classroom to remove their snow boots, but teachers did not have to. Since the temperature was very low that day, the author felt it better for the students to leave their boots on, regardless of the rule (she did not think of canceling the class). The principal was furious that she had not cleared her action with him first, and the whole town resented a foreigner’s disrespect for established custom. In January 1995, the author left Dolmazlice feeling that she had “failed to understand the provinces and failed to find a place for herself there.”

The cosmopolitan city of Prague was more amenable to visiting Americans. Because the dollar went so far in the mid-1990s, a number of Americans lived there, and the author found like-minded company in a community of resident poets and writers. She also discovered a large segment of the population she called “bourgeois communists.” Among them was the mailman, who delivered mail faithfully six days a week, kept his mouth shut and stayed out of trouble. As a result, he expected a reasonable retirement when the time came.

Ms. Shore’s book, which describes the journeys the author took from Berlin to Moscow, from Vienna in Europe’s west through Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw and Bucharest to Vilnius and Kiev in the post-communist East is a chronicle of those who suffered under communism, those who got by and those who were its administrators.

After a time as a graduate student, the author visited Poland. There she became involved in the Jewish community with its complexity of competing factions and searches for recovery. She had been born Jewish, but describes herself as a nonbeliever. She studied the lives of communists who came to Poland with the Red army, helped govern the country and then, betrayed by the god they worshipped, often faced execution. To aggrieve them further, their children frequently turned anti-communist.

In Poland, the author once more consorted with a number of aspiring poets and writers, and it is encouraging to read of the thriving intellectual class she encountered there. Curiously, she discovered that the American poet Polish writers most admired was the egocentric howler, Allen Ginsburg. The book is not a compendium of poetry, however, good or bad. It is a series of tragic narratives of people who set out to build a heaven on earth and ended up constructing a communist hell. Their descendants ask, “What went wrong?” and “How can one construct a Utopia that does not turn upon oneself?”

At the end of the book, the author describes a lecture she was invited to give at the salon of a famous intellectual. She was asked questions similar to the ones above, but had no answers. Musing later she writes, “The lives of those angst-laden poets and their friends had not disclosed to me the secret of how to save the world. What I had learned was that pathological narcissism was not only something one reveled in, but above all something one truly suffered from . I learned that the noblest of motives could lead to the basest of outcomes; that actions inevitably had consequences in excess of their intent; I learned that I could not write a book with a satisfying conclusion, for the lives of the intriguing protagonists were breathtakingly catastrophic. I learned that the past could not be made OK.”

On this gloomy note, Ms. Shore ends her work. Yet one can cautiously say that today, in Poland, the Czech Republic and all the countries of the East the author visited, life is better now than it was. It is to the future that the historically anguished Eastern Europeans look.

Sol Schindler is a retired foreign service officer.

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