A Ripple of the Polonaise

Perry Anderson

  • History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the Nineties by Timothy Garton Ash
    Allen Lane, 441 pp, £20.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9323 5

Western curiosity about other lands has a long history as a literary phenomenon – its fashionable origins are generally dated to the Grand Siècle, the time of the voyages to Mughal India of François Bernier or Thomas Coryate. Distinctions between the more advanced European cultures in the volume or quality of travellers’ tales would be difficult to make for most of the modern period. In the Enlightenment, for every Cook there was a Bougainville or Georg Forster; somewhat later, at a higher level, Humboldt or Custine. But in the 20th century, one society seems to have outproduced all others, across the genres. Between the wars, there was a strong strain of exoticism in French writing, variously surfacing in Gide, Morand, Saint-Exupéry, Michaux, Leiris, Malraux and others, to which Tristes Tropiques can be seen as a melancholy quietus. Little comparable followed. On this side of the Channel, where the tradition was always less philosophical, no such break is visible. The literature of travel appears to have become something of a British speciality.

Why this should be so is not at first glance clear. But two powerful – opposite, yet not unrelated – impulses may supply much of the explanation. On the one hand, the stifling parochialism and puritanism of an insular middle-class culture, with all its weight of boredom and repression, made escape abroad an instinctively attractive option for restless spirits: a motive that can be traced back to early Victorian times, when George Borrow’s fascination with Spanish or Gypsy low life was bred of detestation for native ‘gentility’. On the other hand, Britain’s Imperial primacy – whose memory long outlasted its reality – inevitably encouraged dreams of daring exploits in remote lands and stirring encounters with alien peoples, without necessarily unsettling loyalty to the values of the Home Counties. The horizon of Empire habituated Englishmen to the idea of overseas adventures.

Between these two banks an abundant stream of writing poured forth, with any number of undertows, eddies and crosscurrents. If we confine ourselves to the first half of the century, a number of features are noticeable. Geographically, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Danube basin were for a long time privileged zones – the terrains of St John Philby and Robert Byron, of Norman Douglas and Patrick Leigh-Fermor, of R.W.Seton-Watson and Rebecca West. Sorties farther afield – like Peter Fleming’s expeditions to the Gobi or Matto Grosso – were fewer. Paradoxically, the vast expanse of the Empire itself was not fertile soil for this kind of writing. There, British power was too close at hand. It generated another set of forms altogether: memoirs, morose or nostalgic, of colonial functionaries like Orwell or Woolf, or avowedly scientific monographs by anthropologists such as Firth or Evans-Pritchard.

In principle, three types of author were professionally distinguishable – the journalist, the writer, the scholar. In fact, Seton-Watson, most unambiguously a scholar – chairs in history at London and Oxford – made his name as a periodical correspondent in Eastern Europe; Leigh-Fermor, by any definition a writer, was no less interested in the distant past of his obscure finger of the Peloponnese than in its present; Evelyn Waugh set out for the Horn and the Levant as a mercenary for Northcliffe, but who imagines he ceased to observe or write as a novelist? In the postwar period, the enormous growth of the media and the dwindling number of authors with ‘independent means’ have made resort to journalism of one kind or another a necessity, even for relatively successful writers; and this has encouraged journalists to think of themselves as writers, if not – on receipt of institutional grants – as interim scholars.

Another kind of taxonomy would take as its focus neither local subject nor alien object but the relationship between them. Here the range of possible aims and attitudes behind a literary engagement with unfamiliar cultures is much wider. It is interesting that systematic hostility should be rare (and the exceptions often light-hearted), in contrast to the notorious ambivalences of biography, showing perhaps that it is more difficult to turn against a society than an individual. For the most part, the stances adopted have not been those of the critic, still less the foe. They are, rather, those of the adventurer, the admirer and the advocate. These positions may be combined, but should not be confused – though there are no watertight divisions between them. An advocate is likely to be an admirer. An admirer may easily also be an adventurer. An adventurer – this is much more unusual, but possible: Malraux in Indochina – can be an advocate, without being an admirer.

Where the roles blend in any given individual, it is rarely hard to see which is dominant. Evelyn Waugh in Ethiopia was an adventurer sans phrases. Wilfred Thesiger, although unquestionably adventurous, was an admirer. In 1916, at the age of six, he had watched Ras Tafari’s triumphal entry into Addis Ababa, his enemies hauled behind him in an atrocious procession. ‘I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendour,’ he later recorded, ‘for savagery and colour and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration of long-established custom and ritual.’ In 1930, watching Ras Tafari’s coronation as Emperor Haile Selassie, Thesiger regretted that Waugh, ‘the one person present with a gift for writing, was blind to the historical significance of the occasion, impercipient of this last manifestation of Abyssinia’s traditional pageantry’. His vision of Waugh is a violent declaration of distance between the two species.

I disapproved of his grey suede shoes, his floppy bow tie and the excessive width of his trousers; he struck me as flaccid and petulant and I disliked him on sight. Later he asked me, at second hand, if he could accompany me into the Danakil country, where I planned to travel. I refused. Had he come, I suspect only one of us would have returned.

Thesiger, passionately attached to Ethiopian feudatories, Arabian bedouin, dwellers in the Iraqi marshes, saw the worlds he admired dissolve in his lifetime: Haile Selassie deposed by the Dergue, Nuri al-Said felled in his palace, the Imam of the Yemen – for whose slave-holding tyranny Thesiger fought in old age – defeated in his bid for a counter-revolution. But his books contain little or no advocacy; they are virtually pre-political. St John Philby, his senior in exploring the Empty Quarter, offers an ironic contrast. An outspoken enemy of British imperialism after the First World War, who encouraged Ibn Saud to cut deals with American oil companies to assure the latter’s independence of London, he died a self-declared socialist – who never hesitated to advocate unpopular causes in his own country – under secure Saudi protection.

The figure of the British enthusiast for the cause of an oppressed people abroad goes back to Byron in Greece. Lawrence and Philby, espousing rival dynasties in the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, brought it to the Middle East. But its more natural stage was always Mediterranean or Balkan, where buried identities or ancient unities of European civilisation could more readily be invoked. Rebecca West’s massive and idiosyncratic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an emotive cry for the Serbs as the Wehrmacht swept through Yugoslavia, belongs in this tradition. Its greatest representative, however, was the elder Seton-Watson, who not only wrote the first modern histories in English of the Czechs, Slovaks and Romanians (he did not live to complete a companion study on the South Slavs) but played a key role in the wartime ideology and diplomacy that led to the creation of all three states of the Little Entente. This was advocacy at its highest – historically most effective – level.

After the Second World War, conditions changed. The figure of the explorer, still significant in the interwar literature – Fleming, Thesiger, Saint-Exupéry – soon became defunct, as the inventory of the globe closed. Distance was banalised by television and mass tourism. ‘Primitive’ societies were enrolled in modern markets. The world became a universal political battleground. In this setting, the heroic strain in the earlier literature – its Foreign Legion side – was more difficult to sustain. Not that drama was missing. But it was now typically modern and political, calling for professional skills of a different kind. The representative figure became the journalist with specialist knowledge of a given country or region, reporting or analysing the events of the day, from some longer historical or cultural perspective. The literature of overseas engagement is now dominated by this form.

Among its most fluent practitioners are the three Anglo-musketeers regularly featured in the New York Review of Books: Neal Ascherson and Timothy Garton Ash (spurs won in Eastern Europe) and Ian Buruma (in East Asia). United by common liberal convictions, the trio are otherwise quite distinct. Garton Ash, a generation younger than Ascherson, followed his path from Germany to Poland as lands of primary reportage. In 1982-83, both wrote passionately committed books about Solidarity. Thereafter, Garton Ash immersed himself much more deeply and single-mindedly than Ascherson in the politics of Eastern Europe during the final years of the Cold War. The period may have something to do with the difference. As the Eighties unfolded, the East European oppositions to Communism were steadily drawn into the magnetic field of the West’s dominant ideology – the uncompromising doctrines of the Right proclaimed by Reagan and Thatcher. For Garton Ash, then an editor and contributor at the Spectator, this was a natural and desirable evolution. For Ascherson, no friend of Thatcherism, it must have posed more difficulties. Probably, too, domestic considerations weighed in their own right. Ascherson and Buruma mix Scottish and Dutch with Jewish origins; both have expressed sharp dislike of standard British identities and their customary supports – leading, in Ascherson’s case, to direct involvement in Scottish national politics. The English credentials of Garton Ash, by contrast, appear to be unalloyed. When he set out in 1978 for Berlin in his blue Alfa Romeo, Britain was not in question. Undistracted by doubts about the home country, he could throw himself more completely into patriotic causes beyond the Elbe.

The result has been an impressive oeuvre, widening over two decades. After initial reportage on life in East Germany based on his time as a postgraduate there, serialised in Der Spiegel, and a detailed account of the rise of Solidarity in Poland (The Polish Revolution), came The Uses of Adversity – subtitled ‘Essays on the Fate of Central Europe’ – in the spring of 1989, extending his range of testimony to Hungary and Czechoslovakia. In these years, slipping intrepidly from one underground to another, he developed an incomparable set of friendships with dissident intellectuals in the last three countries (by now he was banned from the DDR) that enabled him to chart the erosion of Communism in the region more vividly and acutely than any other journalist of the time: a process he expected to take the form of a prolonged ‘Ottomanisation’ – loosening and decay – of Soviet power in Eastern Europe.

When, a few months later, sudden collapse came instead, he was perfectly placed to provide the best snapshots of the victors. The Magic Lantern (1990) offers a slide-show of the heroes of the hour, caught in dazzling close-up: Adam Michnik, Jacek Kuron, Leszek Balcerowicz, Bronislaw Geremek in Warsaw; Árpád Göncz and Viktor Orbán in Budapest; in Berlin, ‘the greatest street-party in the history of the world’; and finally, the climax in Prague with Havel – ‘it was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man’ – which Garton Ash observed as a participant alongside Václav Klaus or Jirí Dienstbier in the headquarters of the Civic Forum, ‘the very heart of the revolution’, as the old order disintegrated around it. Adventurer and admirer have seldom been so dramatically or effectively at one.

After this triumph as a reporter, Garton Ash went back to his intended startingpoint as a scholar, with a major historical study of the origins and outcome of German Ostpolitik. Based on careful archival research, as well as extensive interview material, In Europe’s Name (1993) traced Bonn’s oblique and often camouflaged path to German unification: a goal pursued by ambiguous invocation of the unity of Europe and tenacious cultivation of relations with Russia, but relished by neither France nor Britain. Garton Ash’s own reservations about the process attach to actors or episodes judged culpable of backsliding from Western values in dealing with Communist rule in Eastern Europe – principally, Social Democrats from the time of Schmidt’s coolness to Solidarity onwards. But the book, his most substantial achievement to date, is scrupulously balanced and fair in its overall judgment of the upshot of West German strategy towards the East. The File (1997), his quest, via their Stasi dossiers, for those who spied on or informed against him as a student in East Berlin in 1980, can be read as an autobiographical coda. What could easily have been a formulaic inquest becomes, as memory is startled into life by disturbing encounters, the most self-questioning and humane of his writings.

Historically, Garton Ash belongs to the last levy of the Cold War, a cohort fired by an uncomplicated anti-Communism. His staunchness made him a natural candidate for recruitment to MI6, which propositioned him early on, as it had Ascherson in his time. Though not unattracted by the idea of this kind of clandestine work, he eventually decided against it on the grounds that he did not want to be controlled from above: it was better to be a freebooter than a functionary in the battle against totalitarianism. After his book on Solidarity came out, he was invited to become deputy director of Radio Free Europe in Munich; again he declined. Repeated approaches of this kind were logical enough. Politically, his credentials as a Cold Warrior of the liberal Right were impeccable. According to George Urban, the best inside source, he could be counted, by the mid-Eighties, among the select group of academics – Hugh Thomas, Brian Crozier, Norman Stone, Leonard Schapiro and others – lending extra-mural advice and assistance to Mrs Thatcher.

Urban’s refreshingly forthright memoir, Diplomacy and Disillusion at the Court of Margaret Thatcher, also makes clear that Garton Ash was a courtier with quirks of his own. Looking round the table at Chequers, with the Prime Minister at its head, Urban noted of his neighbour:

Tim is an excellent analyst; he is young and has already made a name for himself. I can see in him a future R.W. Seton-Watson or a politician of the first water. He is rational, can think on his feet and his heart is in the right place – with one or two exceptions: he made misjudgments about Nicaragua and has a soft streak in him when it comes to the Third World, but on Eastern Europe he is sound and has written some excellent stuff.

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