ROOM SERVICE by Richard Swartz


Reports from Eastern Europe
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Swartz’s masterful travel writing/journalism—in the tradition of Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski—brings us closer to a true feel for the essence of Eastern Europe, as well as human frailty. Having worked for 25 years as the Eastern European correspondent for the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, Swartz amassed a wealth of knowledge about the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Finding his old stamping grounds undergoing rapid change and witnessing a curious revisionist approach to the peoples and places he knew intimately, Swartz drolly declares his intent to set the record straight—perhaps: “How it really was; but even that was not quite true.” Swartz’s subjects range from professors, authors, artists, and a masseuse (to the Ceauáescus), to cities, each with a distinct personality and style. Paris uses you and “exists for its own sake,” while Vienna is repeatedly portrayed with the brutal honesty of a devoted admirer: Carnival marks the moment “when the Viennese disfigure their already ugly faces with even uglier masks.” In every essay, in every turn of phrase, Swartz’s writings deal with lofty themes—life and death, depression (East European—instilled), and nostalgia. Every essay is a gem of both tragedy and humor, balanced with infinite delicacy. These qualities are amply evident in what is arguably the most haunting selection from Room Service, a poignant commentary on nostalgia as witnessed among a group of elderly card players in Prague. Swartz precisely captures how, where the very objects of their past were absent, many among the older generations in communist Eastern Europe lived in a dream world. “Memory itself had become an album without pictures, and perhaps it was for that very reason that they had decided to remain in their good old days—to fill that empty space with themselves.” These 16 essays occupy that rare place where journalism becomes literature and where impressionistic portraits of individuals artfully convey the spirit of their time and place.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 1-56584-418-1
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: New Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998