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East Bloc Drama From Front Row

By Robert Marquand is an editorial writer for the Monitor / July 19, 1990

THE MAGIC LANTERN: THE REVOLUTION OF '89 WITNESSED IN WARSAW, BUDAPEST, BERLIN, AND PRAGUE By Timothy Garton Ash New York: Random House 156 pp., $17.95 `People, your government has returned to you.'

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- Vaclav Havel

THAT Czechoslovakia's ebullient velvet revolution last fall was organized and conducted by a dissident playwright operating from a series of rooms beneath a theater called the Magic Lantern seems too perfect. Can art and nature and irony and justice all be so aligned?

They were last November in Prague. ``In a sense,'' writes Timothy Garton Ash, ``all of Prague became a Magic Lantern.'' The entire city glowed with a sudden awakening to an old Bohemian expression of religious reform: Pravda Vitez'i, or ``Truth shall prevail.''

The mass demonstrations, the factory strike committees, the improvised posters splattered everywhere, the theaters packed every evening for debate, the Civic Forum groups founded in schools and offices - all were expressions of men and women overthrowing the lies not only in the government and official press, writes Ash, but also in themselves, in the daily hypocrisy they had too long tolerated.

``The semantic occupation was as offensive to them as military occupation,'' he writes. Suddenly the people thirsted for a truer story: ``The long queue every morning in Wenceslas Square, lining up patiently in the freezing fog for a newspaper called The Free Word, was, for me, one of the great symbolic pictures of 1989.''

``The Magic Lantern'' is a short but substantial eyewitness account of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe (and one of the first accounts on that subject to reach United States stores). The book contains four vignettes - central moments in last fall's events in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and especially Prague - wrapped between an introduction and an excellent closing interpretive essay on the causes and meaning of East Europe's decisive rejection of Marxism.

No one is better qualified to tell this story than Ash, one of Britain's leading journalists on European affairs. Nor has any writer in the 1980s been closer than Ash to both the developing reform ideas and the dissident East bloc players. Last fall he coined the expression, ``A revolution of 10s'' (it took 10 years in Poland, 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany, and 10 days in Czechoslovakia.) But it was Ash's friendship with Vaclav Havel, and Havel's use of the expression, that made it famous.

``Magic Lantern'' is not as measured, deep, or stately a book as Ash's previous work, ``The Uses of Adversity'' (Random House, 1989), which assembled much of his reportage, setting a new standard in analyzing the interplay between the ideas and political behavior of Central European nations. The vignettes in ``Magic Lantern'' are less reflective; they've been dashed off immediately after he walked through the Berlin Wall, emerged from Solidarity headquarters, or witnessed the reburial of Imre Nagy, the martyr of the 1956 Hungarian uprising.