BOOK REVIEW / Outings and epiphanies: 'Exit Into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe' - Eva Hoffman: Heinemann, 16.99

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EVA HOFFMAN isn't the first person to go travelling in the post-Communist muddle of Eastern Europe in the past couple of years, and her book arrives at a time when the market in travellers' tales from that other side is reaching saturation point. As readers of her earlier Lost in Translation will know, Hoffman made the same journey in reverse more than 30 years ago, when her family emigrated from Cracow to Canada. But this book isn't really a return to Poland: she had already been back several times before 1989, and Poland is only one of five countries which she traversed in a southerly sweep from the Baltic to the Black Sea in two parallel trips, one in the summer of 1990, the second a year later.

The big bang was over, even in 1990, but stabilisation came in different forms and at different speeds. In Bulgaria, Hoffman found the Communists, with a change of name, back in power after free elections; in Romania, most people tell her that the 1989 revolution was a Communist power struggle, a way for the new president Ion Illiescu to ditch Ceausescu with credibility. In Prague, she meets disquiet that Western commerce is speeding into the post-Communist vacuum. But in Hungary, where private enterprise enjoyed two decades of passive acceptance by the pre-1989 regime, entrepreneurs are expanding their businesses, albeit with trepidation. Her eye becomes sharper the further she moves from Poland, perhaps because unfamiliarity makes it work harder, noting the little deals that could be made, even within strict ideological confines.

Her observations map a history of three periods of East European political control. Under the first, Stalinist period, opposition to the Communist Party meant prison terms, labour camps, even execution. Then there was a period of strict control, where any dissident activity included only a few people, who risked harassment at work or imprisonment for distributing samizdat material. Then there was a period of parallel structures, where official tolerance made it possible, although still difficult, for relatively large-scale printing operations to function, and for censored material to be distributed widely, if clandestinely. Poland and Hungary reached the third phase in the 1980s, Czechoslovakia had a brief taste in 1968, before the screws were turned by the Soviet invasion. In Romania after the 1970s, control narrowed down the permissible subjects of thought to a single word, Ceausescu, while Bulgarians had a surprising liberty of thought.

The travelogue proceeds through a series of random outings - to sites of national significance, such as Hungary's Lake Balaton or the Roman splendours of Plovdiv in Bulgaria - or simply to places where her contacts happen to be going. She observes the restorative tranquility of small village life and peasant rituals. She meets the winners, the losers, and the vindicated: Gyorgy Konrad, the Hungarian novelist; Paul Goma, a Romanian dissident; Konstantin Gebert, a Polish Jew, who under the pen-name Dawid Warszawski was a noted commentator in the Solidarity underground press; Anna Grusova, the daughter of the purged Czech politician Eduard Goldstucker. There are particularly interesting sketches in self-justification from a Polish censor, and a Hungarian who spent half his life at the Marxism-Leninism Institute.

Unfortunately, these conversations are waterlogged in a good deal of slush. Hoffman writes as an American coming to a region of substandard plumbing (endless drab rooms, delayed meals, crowded trains, inefficient and unhelpful clerks), and this threatens to turn her in to a whingeing outsider, undermining her emigre-insider persona. She is annoyingly erratic about giving the full names of the people she interviews, when it is surely no longer necessary to protect East European sources. And, as pure travel writing, hers has an unfortunate penchant for icy epiphanies: a swim in Lake Balaton becomes, improbably, 'a moment in which ambiguities, and almost wrongs and almost rights, dissolve evanescently into the sense of just right, just as it should be.'

However, no one can blame the author for her honest confusion in the face of so many years of restraint suddenly unleashed. Her second tour, in 1991, reveals few changes, but a great deal more uncertainty. If she were to return again, she would find the Communists back in power in Poland,

nationalists bellowing at the economic crashes in Slovakia, as well as Hungarian expanionist parties waiting in the wings in Budapest. As she herself concludes: 'utterly fluid'.