BOOK REVIEW / Freedom rules tokay: Godfrey Hodgson on Eva Hoffman's clear, unsentimental look at the troubled life of eastern Europe. 'Exit into History' - Eva Hoffman: Heinemann, 16.99 pounds

MUCH Western reporting on eastern Europe since the fall of Communism has been at once naive and self-centered. It is impatiently assumed in much of what has been written about the region that a magical agency called 'the free market' (What market? In what commodities and services? By whom provided?) will swiftly bring Hungary and Poland and even Romania and Bulgaria up to western European levels of economic development.

At the same time, the social and political performance of these societies, just emerging from more than 50 years in the torture chamber, has too often been judged by standards that would only be appropriate if they had indeed been as free and prosperous for as long as the West. What's this, too many reporters have asked in mock horror, pollution? In areas reduced to fueling their industry with brown coal? What, minorities - Gypsies, Turks, Hungarians in Transylvania, Jews where any remain - still subject to discrimination? As if, after two centuries of the free market, sulphuric acid and segregation were unknown in Pennsylvania and Alabama, Sheffield or Tower Hamlets.

It is the enormous merit of Eva Hoffman's book that it is free from that kind of ideological claptrap. It is true that Hoffman grew up in Cracow. But that has never stopped other returned emigrants from uttering smug and simplistic accounts of the shortcomings of the country they left in their youth.

Hoffman's autobiography, Lost in Translation, was a wonderful book. Courageously, given the powerful pressures of the 'only in America' myth, she confronted the emotional and cultural costs of migration; the possibility that however justified the emigration, and however successful the immigrant in his or her new country (and she herself made the long traverse from an immigrant bungalow in Vancouver to a job on the New Yorker magazine), much is lost, much suffering inflicted, by the process of uprooting.

Her new book is an account of several visits to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. Like Rebecca West's classic account of pre-war Yugoslavia, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon (recently reissued by Canongate, pounds 9.99), which it resembles but in some respects surpasses, it is a mosaic built up of sketches of people, accounts of conversations, descriptions of places.

It is beautifully written, full of word pictures that stay in the mind: the taste of tokay poured for her by an entrepreneurial priest in a Hungarian village; the uncanny blue of the paint on an old monastery in the foothills of the Carpathians, the throb of gypsy music in a backroom dive hidden under the elegant skirts of a baroque city in Bohemia.

Her book is less pretentious and more ambitious than most of the torrent of accounts we have been offered since 1989. Less pretentious, in that she offers neither analysis nor prediction, let alone judgment; more ambitious, in that she has really tried to understand what it felt like to be hurled out of Hitler's frying pan into Stalin's fire, to find pride, meaning, even scraps of happiness in life under the heel of the tyrants, and then to emerge blinking into the light of a freedom. She understands that it can be bitter both for the young who find it disappointing and for those who know that for them it has come too late.

She has talked to all conditions of men and women from a faded resort on the Baltic to the mountain monasteries of Bulgaria. She has sat up and talked with intelligents of all persuasions: Communists, heroic anti-Communists, unheroic recent anti-Communists. Her understanding encompasses the way human beings have been moulded by politics, gender, race and generation; her tolerance is immense, but not unlimited.

She can record a remark like, 'Oh, we were all for the Germans', said by a peasant in a remote Romanian village with bitter memories of the Russians both before and after the German invasion, and understand why, in the context of that man's experience, it is not evidence of irredeemable evil, but comprehensible and even logical.

She can sympathise with a Polish ex-censor in a Warsaw publishing house and try to tease out what he means when he justifies his trade by saying that after all 'Anything can mean anything'. He explains that officials who were supposed to believe that Communist Poland was an earthly paradise were relieved when the censor deliberately ignored the critical subtext lurking behind bland fiction, and so allowed subverson to be published, if it was subtle enough.

She can even respond to the personal liberation offered to a minority by the new enterprise culture, and even to some of the entrepreneurs. She listens to Eva, for example, who has made a fortune distributing American videos in Budapest, and is excited by the spectacle of this woman 'making something out of nothing by sheer power of intention and intelligence'.

There is excellent reporting here. Out of a hundred sharply illustrative little anecdotes, let me cite the two couples, father and mother, both Bulgarian Communists, and son and daughter-in-law, both in revolt against Communism, finding out only when they got to their first clandestine resistance meeting that they all wanted to work for change, but had not trusted each other enough beforehand to say so.

There is, however, something more: a moral, even. Hoffman is reticent about her own beliefs and tactful about others', so you have to tease it out. If I understand what she is saying, it is that the East Europeans learned from the years of betrayal and suffering something that is not widely understood in the West: that you have to make your own happiness in whatever external circumstances have been given you. But she also understands that freedom is even more real for those who have been deprived of it, that the task of deciding what to do with it is enormous, and that many of those decisions may be disastrous.