Monday Book: The East Comes West HISTORY OF THE PRESENT: ESSAYS, SKETCHES AND DISPATCHES FROM EUROPE IN THE 1990S BY TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, ALLEN LANE/ PENGUIN PRESS, Pounds 20

The Independent (London, England), June 14, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Monday Book: The East Comes West HISTORY OF THE PRESENT: ESSAYS, SKETCHES AND DISPATCHES FROM EUROPE IN THE 1990S BY TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, ALLEN LANE/ PENGUIN PRESS, Pounds 20


THE TITLE of these essays was invented by George Kennan to describe an earlier book by Timothy Garton Ash, a deft phrase to describe what the grand old man of foreign policy called "that small and rarely visited field of literary effort where journalism, history and literature... come together". Within this fertile intellectual triangle, the author situates his evocations of the Europe that has emerged and is still emerging from the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of Soviet Communism.

As Garton Ash observes, Westerners are steeped in the Whig tradition of expecting history to bring progress, and the good to drive out the bad. Yet the happy ending that 1989 seemed to provide to a century overshadowed by two hot wars and one cold one proved illusory. Ten years on, the future has been forged in a part of Europe by violent "ethnic cleansing", rockets and mortar shells. It is being resolved, or rather cauterised, by means of aerial bombing and an international protection force.

The sheer scope of this collection reminds us that the continent of Europe is wide, "Not only up and down but side to side", as Cabaret's Sally Bowles observed. Garton Ash rightly insists on the term "Central" rather than Eastern Europe - the latter being a lazy appellation that makes it too easy to discount the emerging democracies as lying beyond the main family of European nations. As the Balkans darken and Europe havers, his frustrations intensify. "One day," he writes at the end of 1995, "I want to hijack Helmut Kohl, Jacques Chirac and Jacques Santer and all the other leaders of the European Union." He would take them to Sarajevo to confront the despair and the lack of belief in the West as saviour. "I should like to see if they can go on smoothly delivering their soft, prefabricated speeches about our Europe of peace and progress." The point is well made. The gap between the rhetoric of European integration and the inability of institutional Europe to prevent bloodshed, let alone build the promised Common European Home, verges on the grotesque. Yet Garton Ash's contempt sometimes strikes me as coming a little too easily. The spectateur engage, as he describes himself just a bit preciously, has the best of both worlds. He investigates reality and often finds it wanting, while avowing that it is not his business to change it. Another chapter describes his extended argument with Vaclav Havel about whether the place of intellectuals is to reflect on politics or become involved.

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Monday Book: The East Comes West HISTORY OF THE PRESENT: ESSAYS, SKETCHES AND DISPATCHES FROM EUROPE IN THE 1990S BY TIMOTHY GARTON ASH, ALLEN LANE/ PENGUIN PRESS, Pounds 20
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