Tuesday, 2 March 2010

New books: 1989 and much else

The 20th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions last year sparked a number of books on the topic. Among them is Nick Thorpe’s ’89: The Unfinished Revolution, published by the new publishing house Reportage Press.
Nick Thorpe is the BBC’s correspondent in Budapest, where he has lived since 1986. He sets out to tell the story of 1989 from a personal perspective and there are some interesting glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain. But while Victor Sebestyen chose to write a general history of the events leading up to 1989 and Michael Meyer wrote a personal account, it seems Thorpe really cannot make up his mind if this book is a personal account or a history and therefore tries to make it both things at the same time.
The focus is on Hungary and Czechoslovakia, for which the reason seems to be that Thorpe was there during some of the key events. But unlike some of the others who have written books on 1989 he missed several of the most significant events. Occasionally the story is interrupted when he left the scene, such as the war in Bosnia – the account is suddenly broken off when Thorpe himself returns to Hungary because of his wife’s pregnancy.
The parts based on his own experiences are the best, but the mix of first-hand and second-hand accounts is quite unfortunate. Sadly he also manages to get several of the central facts wrong – the Berlin Wall falls a day too early, Germany is reunified a year too late and Gorbachev holds talks with the wrong President Bush.
The events up to and including 1989 fill only about 1/3 of the book, with the rest of it given over to developments in Central Europe and the Balkans during the last twenty years. But this is a confusing mix of a little of this and a little of that – environmental questions, the secret services, the plight of the Roma people, political development in general and much else.
Parts of the book’s proceeds go to a Hungarian organisation advocating home births and there is a whole chapter extolling home births, complete with detailed accounts of the births of some of his children and horror stories about giving birth in hospital, all of which smacks too much of campaign journalism.
The author does not always succeed in making it clear in what ways these topics are linked to the events of 1989, but he states that it all has to do with people’s freedom to make choices about their own lives.
All in all, the book makes a rather confused impression – the author simply tries to pack too many not necessarily interrelated topics into one volume. The fact that there is no table of contents and no index and that the chapters are divided into a myriad of subchapters add to the messy impression.

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