Sunday, August 12, 2007

Author offers a fascinating survey of Europe past

Geert Mak, a distinguished Dutch writer, spent the year 1999 crisscrossing Europe and writing daily reports for NRC Handelsblad, which the paper dutifully carried on the first page. Mak's brief: to revisit the sites of the major events of the 20th century and file dispatches on what became of these places; whether the passage of time was as charitable to them as history. This book, a compilation of Mak's dispatches, along with additional material, is a fascinating study of the continent's captivating past.

This is no tedious academic exercise; it's first-rate journalism combined with a love for history. Mak divides his book into twelve chapters, each covering a significant period of 20th century European history. So we begin by dissecting the three great scandals that rocked Europe as the 19th century drew to a close: Oscar Wilde's perversity trial, Philipp zu Eulenburg's intimacy with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and most notably, the Dreyfus affair.

From here to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mak's book broaches nearly all the major events of the last century, including the Dresden bombing, the Chernobyl mishap and the Srebrenica massacre. The best part of the journalistic approach is that we come across interviews and private observations that lend a personal touch to the ungraspable force of the past.

What makes the book interesting are Mak's sharp, coruscating statements that deflate the hype of grand ideologies with a studied lack of emotion, all the more triumphant for what they seek to turn to rubble. A case in point: When Mak visits Razliv where Lenin hid after the failed rebellion of July 1917, he is amazed to see that a glass box had been erected around the communist leader's hiding place, "the kind one sees more often at sacred sites. Through it we can view the interior: a table, a bed, a samovar, a chair at the window, a teacup with four dead flies in it, a stable with space for one cow. Lenin's stable at Bethlehem." Touché !

In the Acknowledgments, Mak regrets: All of Europe cannot fit in a single book. True, but with a writer this accomplished, most of it certainly does.

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From St. Petersburg Times

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