Traveling through East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union just before those countries burst forth with demands for greater freedom, Tanner, now the Belgrade correspondent of the London Independent, views Eastern Europe with a splendidly idiosyncratic eye. Pages devoted to such matters as the political maneuverings that led to the formation of the Czech nation under Thomas Masaryk in 1918 and the interplay of the theological positions of the Protestant reformers Jan Huss and John Wycliffe during the 14th century alternate with memorable vignettes of Tanner's life on the road. At every stop along his itinerary, the author sketches in the historical and cultural background, then proceeds to tell of his frequently hilarious adventures and misadventures with such figures as four drunken Vietnamese in East Berlin, ""disoriented by the noisy beer bars, the bulky blonde women""; a male prostitute in Leningrad, (""I am in room 47. Come anytime""); an 80-year-old woman in Prague, ""wearing a wig that might have been borrowed from the dressing room of Lucille Ball."" But not all Tanner's reminiscences are so amusing. In one affecting chapter, he recalls an afternoon spent at the Auschwitz death camp and his speculations there on the nature of those who once ran it. ""One fears,"" he writes, ""that the vast majority of the staff. . .were no more insane than the average unthinking civil servant."" Tanner also draws interesting comparisons between the various cities he visits along his route. ""Prague gleamed as brightly as a new pin. . . Everywhere there was paint, paint, paint."" East Berlin, on the other hand, is ""grey and windswept."" Berliners, however, display ""an abiding optimism,"" while the residents of the Czech city are wrapped in a ""fundamental pessimism. . . [and] search continually for someone to blame for their present misfortunes."" By combining his knowledge of the history, culture, and ethnic diversity of Eastern Europe with a sharp eye for human follies and failings, Tanner depicts a world on the brink of change and hints at what may be to come. Arresting, informative, amusing.