Welcome to the Wild East. First, there are Bulgarian Gypsies with dancing bears. Then there is a Polish village whose inhabitants dress up as Hobbits from The Lord of the Rings, along with Gandalf, played by a woman, and Gollum—in private life a farmer who receives European Union subsidies. There are hundreds of thousands of communist-era bunkers in Albania, some of them now being demolished by men in search of rebar. Meanwhile, a Serbian remembers being “treated” by the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade, where the notorious war criminal was in hiding, disguised in a ponytail and beard and pretending to be a faith healer: “At one point he told me that cosmic energy came to him via the hair and beard.” And to cap it all off, a Georgian woman dreams of Joseph Stalin visiting her at night: “He gazes at me, puffs on his pipe, and twirls his moustache. He smiles, and then heads for the door. Then I weep and cry for him to stay.”
Dancing Bears, the latest book by the Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, is never dull. This is Tom Wolfe meets Franz Kafka, or perhaps a Milan Kundera remake of Dances With Wolves. The excellent English version by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a leading translator from Polish, perfectly captures Szablowski’s pithy, staccato prose.
Yet niggling questions remain. The subtitle of the American edition promises readers “true stories of people nostalgic for life under tyranny.” Szablowski’s account hardly bears out this diagnosis. As a collection of vivid, skillfully crafted reportage from the wilder corners of the postcommunist world, Dancing Bears is a rattling good read. But in what sense, precisely, are these stories true, and what do they actually tell us about life in postcommunist Europe?
Szablowski’s report is divided into two halves. The first is about the dancing bears once kept by Bulgarian Gypsies (now more politely called Roma). After Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, animal-rights activists persuaded the
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