Book review: From Russia, with a hangover

BORDERS UP! EASTERN EUROPE THROUGH THE BOTTOM OF A GLASS BY VITALI VITALIEV, SCRIBNER'S, pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a fine quotation in this book from the former Polish dissident Adam Michnik which suggests that the old Communist countries have progressed to freedom while carrying their old enslavement with them. It is not just that there are old Communists everywhere in power, but that the populations have retained the evasive, conspiratorial, surveillance- happy and ferociously self-interested psychology which the world came to associate with that dehumanising ideology.

To apply Vitali Vitaliev's controlling metaphor, you can't pour old wine into new bottles, and this catalogue of his bibulous travels is designed to disabuse those who thought you could. The free market in those beer, vodka and wine regions which used to fly the red flag is a moral free- for-all, mainly felt by tourists as theft, extortion and sexual grossness, and by journalists as a range of political incorrectnesses ranging from the amusing to the shocking. Actually, what Vitaliev suffers most from is moral kitsch - like junk food at the entrance to Auschwitz and Japanese tourists posing beneath the Nazi slogan Arbeit macht frei, examples of behaviour which have nothing intrinsically to do with his subject. But at least he is able directly to insult the staff of Gdansk's Hotel Lido, aka "Libido".

The specific ex-Eastern Bloc corruption goes deeper than sex and money. In 1989, to cite Michnik again, the freezer was switched off. In the meltdown all kinds of forbidden hatreds and ambitions swam to the surface, the nastiest of which was racism. Vitaliev, a former prize-winning Soviet journalist, and now a British newspaper columnist much admired for his travel-writing since he defected in 1990, has not given up hope. To live in a country where people have no moral respect for themselves or anyone else must, he says, be better than living under tyranny and fear. But it is hard to look on such a grotesque mess as he describes, either comatose and degraded, or tarted-up Western-style but equally debased, and not simultaneously long to transmute the unbearable vision.

Satire is an old Russian escape route, and Vitaliev is a more or less quality performer. His style is energetic and relentlessly punning, like a version of Nabokov for the popular prints. The problem with this book comes with its mixing of the real theme of drunkenness with the use of drunkenness as a metaphor for all those rottennesses released into the free world.

There was hellish drinking in the Communist world, when desperate Russians and who knows who else imbibed skimmed, boiled tooth-powder and perfume. Vitaliev grew up under the influence and remembers it with that queer fondness that many sophisticated Russians bring to their metaphysical tradition of alcoholism. But it is a fabricated premise that we uninformed Western readers (to whom Vitaliev massively condescends) will be surprised to find that ex-Communists drink more than ever now in order to escape the confusion of change. Moreover, do we want the details of the drinks, with vintages? In a novel, perhaps.

Vitaliev, on the wagon by the time he gets home, is most memorably disgusted by a bus-load of farting, vomiting Australian tourists en route to the Munich Bierfest. So what is this book about? Maybe in the loose, staggering shape of Borders Up! lurks an autobiography and a universal moral tract, which the satirist refuses to write.

As we lurch between dipsocratic anecdote and historical facts, Vitaliev rehearses many cliches, such as those about German exactitude and Polish Catholicism, and tries in vain to squeeze interest out of old issues, such as Michael Jackson's sexuality and the Czech production of Semtex. He claims a reluctance to pin down facts as part of his style, but the pages on Czech President Vaclav Havel are still a model of unfounded speculation and disingenuous gestures of "respect". At his most alarming, Vitaliev slides, in a parody of causal reasoning, from beer-drinking cultures to Dachau, and vodka-drinking in anti-Semitic Poland to Auschwitz. A pity, then, but there's a lot of misdirected merde in this book, and not only in the ancient recipe for Pilsner Urquell.

Lesley Chamberlain

The reviewer's most recent book about the Communist world is `In a Place Like That' (Quartet)

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