“The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” by Marci Shore (Crown, 370 pages, $27)
Marci Shore is an associate professor of intellectual history at Yale University and has spent much of her adult life in Central and Eastern Europe. She is the author of “Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism,” and a winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
Her new book, “The Taste of Ashes,” draws on her personal travels, intimate relationships and intensive language and cultural study of countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, to produce a literary and political examination of human life in an Eastern Europe still living in the “shadow of Stalin.”
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Beginning in Prague and ending in Poland, Shore traces a dozen or so lives — politicians, poets, Zionists, theorists, and not a few Holocaust survivors — as she takes account of the long darkness of totalitarianism. Working from newly opened archives (which has produced so much new historiography), digging deep into personal stories of life, death, love, childbirth and literature, Shore encounters secret police, torturers, accusers and the accused as she attempts to chart the emotional, ideological and personal toll that Stalinism and state control extracted from nearly four generations of Europeans.
As a Jewish American with considerable language skills, Shore takes care to chart the precise course of the Zionist-Socialist split in its human scope, talking to survivors in places like Bratislava, Bucharest, Vilnius and Warsaw. Of particular interest is the Polish reality: jealousy, madness, racism and hooliganism, a reality deeply imbedded in the killing fields of the Second World War.
“The Taste of Ashes” is in some ways a technical book not for every taste, burrowing deeply as it does in the intellectual travails of geographical zones hidden to view by the Iron Curtain. For those willing to dig up these old bones, there is much profit and some hope.