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The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe's Past and Uncertain Future Hardcover – January 18, 2011
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"A deeply intelligent journalistic report on the state of that part of the world today, in the form of interviews with powerful people there now. Compelling reading even superficially, but the underlying subject is history itself, and historical consciousness, and it will leave thoughtful ghosts in your mind, too."
—The Ellenville Shawangunk Journal
"An enlightening if unsettling account of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia 20 years after the collapse of communism....broad and vivid."
“Essential reading for anyone who cares about Central Europe’s past and its impact on the present. This book is in Anna Porter’s bloodstream and she writes with passion and conviction about Central Europe’s tormented past and often confused and confusing present. Every page brims with information and firsthand knowledge.”
—Kati Marton, New York Times bestselling author of Enemies of the People
“Intimate and insightful: an exile's poignant return home, an accomplished journalist's shrewd analysis.”
—David Frum, New York Times bestselling author of Comeback
“Anna Porter’s brilliant The Ghosts of Europe will not necessarily confirm what you thought before you started reading it, but it is sure to make you think again about what you thought you knew.”
—George Jonas, author of Vengeance
“Anna Porter is the modern version of a Renaissance explorer. She views old lands with a fresh eye and sends back essential dispatches about new worlds....A must read.”
—Peter C. Newman, author and former editor of Maclean’s and The Toronto Star
"Highly readable and enormously informative, this is a book that will make your head spin."
"[An] intriguing and accessible narrative of contemporary Central Europe."
—Globe and Mail
"Porter offers a succinct, highly readable, contemporary history, interspersed with interviews with influential national figures regarding past, present, and future."
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The opinions and lives of former Hapsburgs, communist officials and those who resisted the communist rule are given in interviews and written of. The problem of lost property is an interesting conundrum that is brought out. Property has been confiscated from the nobility, the Jews, then the gentiles who took over, then taken by the socialists - what are the legalities and who exactly are the real owners? Through wars and political takeovers assets may have been confiscated and `owned' by 3 or 4 people, who gets remuneration?
The loss of the intelligentsia is explored as well as today's tyranny of the majority - all interesting subjects.
Great detail is taken regarding how each area reacted and cooperated with the Germans in WWII, then the communists. Names are given, and the description of their actions is covered. How history is taught in each country, the economic problems and the country's prejudices are explored.
Her feelings do show through in describing her childhood playing in the rubble in Hungary, which she says has the most painful of all loses. Despite this it is an objective look at a part of Europe that is not well covered or even known about by most people today. It would be a good account to read and learn from, especially since many regions have not acquired the economic prosperity that democracy had promised them.
To paraphrase Jan Gross, whom Porter quotes, "In order to reclaim its past, [insert Central European country's name here] will have to tell its past anew." Porter finds that many versions and interpretations of history exist in each of these countries. The observation forces her narrative to turn meta: she documents unfinished histories of settling official histories.
The politics of memory is a nasty affair, and Porter does well to stay above the fray and play the role of an outside observer. The descriptive and analytic depth varies throughout "The Ghosts of Europe": Poland and Hungary get a relatively deeper treatment, with a broader variety of interviewees and themes, while she seems to breeze through the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The project of covering decades of tumultuous history in four countries at once makes for an occasional equivalent of a drive-by.
Even so, Porter succeeds in drawing parallels among the foursome. The picture she draws is of a sense of victimhood, lack of national self-esteem, continued blaming of the Other, persistent antisemitism and 'antiromaism', and rampant corruption. Having emigrated with her parents from Hungary in 1956, the journey has a distinct feel of a return, with an unspoken tinge of disillusionment.
Inconsistent punctuation mars an otherwise powerful narrative; there's no apparent reason why György Konrád's name would be spelled correctly but Milan and Martin ime'ka's not. But Porter is writing for the Western reader, and her facts are solid throughout.
"The Ghosts of Europe" demonstrates that even two decades of democratic discourse aren't enough to establish societal consensus on history. Perhaps what defines Central Europe on the cultural level is the constant retelling of history and the search for consensus about the past. It may take these countries "on the periphery of someone else's center" to become their own centers and shed what György Konrád labeled "satellite mentality," to finally reconcile competing versions of their pasts. Until then, Porter and her ilk, such as those in the book's excellent bibliography, may need to act as myth-busting arbiters.