A Personal Tour In Troubled Lands

EVA HOFFMAN'S latest book, ``Exit Into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe,'' opens six months after the fall of the Berlin Wall and closes on the first day of fighting in the former Yugoslavia.

In between are pages of memories, conversations, observations, and analysis, but few historic events. This is a book about the new ``prose of life,'' (to use a phrase Hoffman notes was popular in Poland when she visited), that has emerged in the wake of the political changes.

Hoffman, who lived in Poland until she was 13 when her family emigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia, based her book on trips made to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria in the summers of 1990 and 1991.

She primes the reader for a personal travelogue when she writes in her introduction: ``In 1989, when the revolutions in Eastern Europe began to reverberate like a series of powerfully plucked harp strings, I knew this was one historical event I wanted to see for myself.''

But Hoffman does not reserve enough space for her personal views, depending instead on less-engaging literary allusions and history-book references to give readers background on the places they are ``visiting.'' To encounter the kind of insight she could have brought to ``Exit Into History,'' readers should refer to Hoffman's first book, ``Lost in Translation,'' her story of moving from Poland to North America.

Broken into numerous disconnected vignettes and encounters, ``Exit Into History'' shines when Hoffman is relaying stories she was told by Eastern Europeans about how they coped under communism and the adjustments they are making after its demise. The story of Anna Grusova, a mother in Czechoslovakia who laments that she ``doesn't think she has the energy to start the process - not only of new actions, but of hope - again,'' is particularly touching. A Polish censor who spent his Communist years finding ways to avoid censoring is also memorable.

The book is strongest in the countries where Hoffman has close ties or friends. In her native Poland, and to a lesser extent in Hungary and Bulgaria, Hoffman introduces readers to emerging politicians, members of the opposition press (many of whom aided in the fall of Communist governments), and new businessmen. In these countries, Hoffman can tackle the tough subjects - such as the results of a new-found freedom of religion and the effect of the changes on the status of women - with more insight than she can where she is merely an outside observer.

It is also refreshing that Hoffman travels beyond capital cities, giving readers rural Eastern Europeans' views and showing places that suffered the brunt of poverty under communism and where poverty is still pervasive today.

Many readers will delight in Hoffman's details - her descriptions of Romania stand out - and her thought-provoking assessments. She identifies concerns common throughout Eastern Europe, such as the shift from valuing culture to valuing commerce, and the new challenges faced by individual countries.

At 400 pages, some may find ``Exit Into History'' too long. The book has no compelling focus to keep readers involved and few hard facts or data. One's greatest wish is that the book had a sense of direction. Not truly in the travel, history, or journalism categories, Hoffman's book gives bits of information from five countries, rather than a unified sense of the author's conclusions or the future of the region.

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