Reports from Eastern Europe
translated by Linda Haverty Rugg
The New Press ($21.95)
by Michael Leville
In Room Service, Richard Swartz's lively new collection of essays, the reader embarks on an emotional odyssey while witnessing the progressive decline of several satellite countries of the former Soviet Union. A Stockholm newspaper correspondent from the late 1960s to early 1990s, Swartz takes us, among other places, to the best hotel in Albania, where room service does not exist and even hot water is unavailable by the late '80s; to Bucharest, to meet the "King of all Roma people throughout the world;" to East Berlin, for a look at Swartz's own 500-page file of lies as compiled by bumbling security police; and to Warsaw, for a depressing look at life in Poland just before the imposition of Martial Law in 1981. In producing such a work, Swartz hopes to disseminate and preserve some truths about a region in a time of massive change before we, and perhaps even he, begins to forget what the truth was.
Describing Prague, for example, Swartz thinks not of the colorful "Paris of the ’90s" brimming with inspired American youth scribbling down their memoirs in trendy cafes, but of the solemn gray destroyed city he recalls from his days as a foreign economics doctoral student just after the Warsaw Pact invasion of 1968—a dark yet absurd time when innocent people could be arrested in the middle of the night and imbecilic door porters could hold rank over just about anyone. "How Cities Are Destroyed" also observes Swartz's research advisor scurrying around university corridors, hauling armfuls of blank paper back and forth simply in order to look busy (making work out of non-work is an obsession in which the entire city seems to participate). This muted professor has the unhealthy, stuffy appearance of being too tightly constrained within his own "shrinking" threadbare clothing, perhaps as a result of years of advising students to "reign in" their dissertation topics and not to dig too deeply into the past but to stick to current party newspapers for primary source material. Ironically, this command-economy, dissertation-advising, and frightened corridor-shuffling all happens not within in a spiritless, concrete block government building, but inside the walls of a beautiful, but crumbling former Bohemian count's palace in the heart of the city.
Swartz is just as adept at portraying the division between the Western state of mind and the world on the other side of the border. In "Lunch in the Country," he finds himself invited to a midday meal just outside of post-revolutionary Bucharest by a Mr. Tanase, an unknown man somehow affiliated with the hotel where Swartz is staying. The lunch is odd to say the least. Erotic undertones are present throughout the meal as Mr. Tanase's wife, wearing only a robe, winks at Swartz and insists he try on a pair of soft leather gloves too small for her husband. Mr. Tanase, meanwhile, busies himself looking for a newspaper reprint of a quotation from Goebbels's 1940 diary claiming that the Hungarians are a "band of dirty swine" and had persecuted the Romanians in the annexed territories. As Swartz has difficulty imagining Goebbels as sympathetic to the Romany cause, the conversation runs dry; when he is not so subtly told it is time to leave, he wonders about their mutual expectations. Why had they invited him? What exactly did they want? His passport? A sympathetic ear? And what did he want from them? He considers:
My curiosity knew no bounds, since I was convinced that I could always save myself by stepping back over the border between my world and theirs. But in this way I had created more confusion and awakened more hopes than I could understand, hopes for those who were out to save themselves, and who saw me as part of their rescue. Even so, their self-respect did not allow them to grab me as a drowning man grabs a lifesaver.
Indeed, the picture Swartz paints of this part of the world, especially at this sad stage in its history, is as bleak as anyone might expect. Somehow, perhaps owing to his exceptional curiosity, sense of humor, and keen eye for detail, Swartz manages in Room Service to present his own experiences with the kind of detached objectivity that makes even melancholic occurrences seem strangely appealing—and therefore closer to the truth.
Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol.3 No. 2, Summer (#10) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1998