Divided Lands Find Common Soil

When even the term "Eastern Europe" is questioned by some as a meaningless anachronism, a collection of contemporary Eastern European prose seems like something of an oddity. The Berlin Wall is down and, though the countries that were caught "behind" it share a piece of history, the uniqueness of their current status makes it clear how different they are from one another. Why should the prose of today's Serbia, for instance, share space with that of contemporary Latvia or Lithuania?


"Description of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary Eastern European Prose" skirts the question by taking a broad approach to the term "contemporary." Nearly half of the book's 43 short pieces were written before 1990, with many of them written as early as the mid-1980s, a time that can safely be referred to as another era. But the overall concept of the book, which brings together works by established writers such as Bohumil Hrabal of the Czech Republic, Ismail Kadare of Albania and Slavenka Drakulic of Croatia as well as younger, previously untranslated authors, is that writers in these 16 former Communist countries share a common soil, a repressive and brutal history that figures in their art, whether written 10 years ago or yesterday.


That history can figure in ways surprising to anyone who expects writings from Eastern Europe to focus directly on politics and social troubles. In the book's introduction, the Czech writer Ivan Klima explains it this way: "...in situations where civil or basic rights are suppressed, many forms of expression become political: unconventional language, a love story with no ideological message, historical writing with heroes other than those officially recognized, a critical picture of the ailments of civilization or moral problems which the regime refuses to recognize, for it insists that everything which somehow complicates life is a throw-back to another era." Indeed, many of the writers included in this collection are more interested in exploring new forms of literature, such as the Hungarian writer Peter Nadas who in "Vivisection" deconstructs his own scene of an artist drawing a model. The mysteries of the interior life are the focus in "We Gaze Up into the Tops of the Spruce Trees," in which Rein Tootmaa, an Estonian writer born in 1957, offers a lyrical sketch of two lovers brought together by their own illusions of romance. In "Two Stories about Suicides," by Jurga Ivanauskaite, a Lithuanian writer born in 1961, a man finds himself unable to open the "Emergency Exit door in the grey wall of existence" until documenting himself in hundreds of studio photographs.


Perhaps because it is so difficult not to think about the former Communist bloc countries in socio-political terms, some of the most rewarding stories in this collection are those that do focus more directly on life than on literature. In "Big Business," the Bulgarian writer Victor Paskov offers an acerbic chronicle of an ?migr? writer's experiences in Paris, where he is wooed by a superficial and wealthy fellow ?migr? who enlists him to write his biography, and encounters another ?migr? begging in the metro as a victim of Ceaucescu, the late Romanian dictator, because it's better business than telling people he is a victim of the lesser-known former Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov. "You may wander in the metro for a year, shouting that you are Todor Zhivkov's victim, and no one will look at you," the beggar tells the writer. "You will starve to death. Ceausescu -- peace to his dust -- may his memory live forever -- God forgive him -- he will feed you. Everyone knows this."


Another engaging story is "Russians by Trade," by the Serbian writer Bora Cosic, a prolific writer born in 1932. A fitting opening for the collection, the piece is a chronicle of the writer's childhood images of Russians, who figured largely in his life and imagination. "Right at that time my aunts learned to perform two Russian songs, to a guitar: 'Those Green Eyes of Yours' and 'East and West are Red,' both sung while crying. Grandpa asked them: "You have a pain somewhere?' The way I understood it all Russian singing signified some ailment, like a cold or maybe worse."


One peculiarity about this collection of writings is that is does not have notations saying which pieces are fiction and which are not. And with so many of the pieces written in the first person, it is difficult to guess. The omission, no doubt, was intentional, as the distinction between autobiography and fiction are often meaningless. Nevertheless, it would be nice to know, at least by way of an introduction to these writers. The book does include, however, brief biographies of each writer.


Michael March, the editor of the collection, is the director of the Prague International Book Fair & Writer's Festival. "Description of a Struggle" seems to be compiled with a similar spirit -- to introduce to a wider readership a group of prolific and talented writers from a part of the world that was silenced for far too long.





"Description of a Struggle: The Picador Book of Contemporary East European Prose," edited by Michael March, Picador, 403 pages, ?17.99.