20.6.14

Wojciech Górecki - The Land of Golden Fleece. Journeys to Georgia*

Rating 7.7

Over the last five years I became a great fan of Polish journalism so that every time I skim through bookshelves labelled 'travels' or 'reportages' I hunt for that bunch of authors I know or for any Polish sounding surname. That's how I 'discovered' Tochman and Stasiuk, for instance. And that's how Wojciech Górecki showed up with two books he wrote, one about Caucasus as a whole and this one about Georgia.

Now, the only Górecki I knew was the composer Henryk whose Third Symphony became an unusual worldwide hit in the mid 1990s. The unexpected success for the Polish composer came thanks to the British trip hop band Lamb who sampled a tiny bit of it in their aptly titled song Górecki back in 1996.
(I didn't like that song as well as the symphony).

Wojciech Górecki is not related to Henryk.
The Italian edition I bought calls Górecki 'the heir of Ryszard Kapuscinski' and Wojciech himself dedicates
'La terra del vello d'oro' ('The Land of the Golden Fleece') to the great Polish reporter.

Are there similarities in writing style and reporting approach between Kapuscinski and Górecki? To be honest I couldn't find many. The dean of Polish reportage liked to write about his own personal daily experiences living in foreign countries and stressing out his fascination for everything local and his distaste for the spoiled reporters gossiping from their five starred resorts. The young dauphin prefers to draw sketches of what he sees around him keeping himself as humble as Kapuscinski but standing more in the background than him.

The Georgia portrayed and narrated by Górecki in the early 2000s was not at war, for the time being. This state of temporary, if apparent, serenity lets the Polish reporter tell the reader about the country's turbulent history, its unique traditions, its multi-layered character. For someone like me who didn't know much about Georgia having read only a single book marginally dealing with it and dating back to the 1960s ('Journey into Russia' by Laurens Van der Post), Górecki's book brought a gust of fresh and precious knowledge.

Even though forty years have passed from Van der Post being invited to a lavish Georgian banquet and writing about its peculiar etiquette, I was happy to read that Górecki experienced the same hospitality and jotted down similar observations. The pages regarding the towerhouses dating back to the 13th century that are still inhabited in some remote and beautiful regions of Georgia are excellent and reminded me of the Albanian towerhouses depicted by Kadare in his novels. Which was a delightful deja-vu.

Whereas the book is thin and somewhat disjointed, it is also very informative and a pleasure to read. My only criticism is that the last chapter might have been placed at the beginning of 'La terra del vello d'oro' as it's extremely helpful in contextualize Georgia and its debated regions such as Abkhazia, South and North Ossetia. But this is only a minor detail.

Even though I'd be more careful to call Wojciech Górecki the heir of Ryszard Kapuscinski, I'm certainly eager to read that second book by him that I bought for he knows his topics well and is a brilliant reporter.

*Please note that my review refers to the Italian edition of the book. Unfortunately, it looks like this book is not yet available in English translation. The title I put is (my) literal translation of the one chosen for the Italian edition.

3.6.14

Victor Sebestyen - Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Rating 8.5

This was an excellent, engaging and quite informative read which happened just when I needed it.
I've been interested in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising/Revolution for quite a long time, but - by sheer coincidence - one week upon finishing Twelve Days I finally visited Budapest for the very first time.

I guess it might have been rather annoying for my partner (she has just confirmed that it was) being led through the Hungarian capital by me unawaringly lecturing her on events and anecdotes from October '56. And I reckon how more than once I juxtaposed the monumental main streets and squares we were navigating through with the black and white pictures depicting Soviet tanks, urban guerrilla, rubble and destruction dating back to the uprising. Sorry for that, Paulina! And blame on you, Victor Sebestyen.

For reading Twelve Days brought me straight into a Budapest that is no more. I got sucked into a time vortex blowing me away from A.D. 2014 Poland and leaving me stranded but not confused in 1956 Hungary.
It took Mr Sebestyen's wizardry only a few pages to captivate me and - much to his merit - once I get into the history whirlwind I was reluctant to get out of it. I'll tell you why.

This is one of those rare history books where the context is introduced and explained thoroughly, the chronology is always clear and the narration manages to be enthralling, coherent and consistent. It reads like a well-plotted political spy story with a Machiavellian cast of characters, but it deals with one of the darkest pages in recent European history. 
Despite of the title he chose, the author doesn't rush to the brave and bloody twelve days of the 1956 uprising/revolution. At the contrary, Mr Sebestyen takes his time to explain what happened to Budapest and Hungary during and after World War II. By doing so the Anglo-Hungarian historian skilfully introduces the readers to a place and time they might not be familiar with and gradually builds up the book to its climax. 

Each of the main domestic characters who played a major part in the events leading to 1956 and following it - Matyas Rakosi, Erno Gero, Laszlo Rajk, Imre Nagy, Janos Kadar - is carefully disclosed in an unbiased and quite objective way. True, when it comes to villains Mr Sebestyen stresses out Gero's 'sadistic smile' or Rakosi's 'overwhelming cynicism', but one must not forget that these men sent thousands of people to death and are justly remembered as criminals by Hungarians. 
What I've found interesting is that the author doesn't depict Imre Nagy - now considered a hero and a martyr by his compatriots - as an entirely positive character. In fact, Sebestyen does quite the opposite by showing us an often undecided politician, an excessively cautious man uncapable to cut the bounds tying him to the USSR and reluctant to accept the moral leadership the Budapest crowds granted him. 
In the same fashion, Janos Kadar - the man who took over the power after the uprising/revolution was crushed to bits by the Soviet tanks - could be included into the villains ranks as he was 'loathed as a Judas' by Hungarians. And yet, Sebestyen doesn't portray Kadar as merely a Muscovite puppet but reckons how in the years following the uprising he actually did something to soften things up leading to the so called 'goulash socialism'.

On a side note, my only criticism to the author is that he might have done a better job on the international stage. 
The role played in smashing the uprising by a deus ex machina such as Nikita Kruscev in Moscow is explained but not investigated as much as it could have been. Looking Westwards, Sebestyen expresses some mild criticism towards the lack of interest in Hungary from the US and the UN, but eventually justifies both Eisenhower and Hammarskjoeld for their giving priority to the Suez crisis unfolding in the very same days.
This point of view is a tad too simplicistic to be accepted completely, but Sebestyen did such an excellent job overall that I can forgive him.

If you are interested in knowing more about the 1956 Hungarian uprising, revolution (or whatever you call it), Twelve Days is a book to get and read soon.