The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe

by Marci Shore


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A shimmering literary examination of the ghost of communism, a haunting presence of Europe's past
   Oskar has just killed himself. After waiting a quarter century, he returned to Prague only to find it was no longer his home. With his memorial service, Yale historian and prize-winning author Marci Shore leads us gently into the post-totalitarian world. We meet a professor of literature who as a child played chess with the extortionist who had come to deliver him to the Gestapo and an elderly Trotskyite whose deformed finger is a memento of seventeen years in the Soviet gulag. Parents who had denounced their teenage dissident daughter to the communist secret police plead for understanding. For all of these people, the fall of Communism has not ended history but rather summoned the past: rebellion in 1968, Stalinism, the Second World War, the Holocaust. The revolutions of 1989 opened the archives, illuminating the tragedy of twentieth-century Eastern Europe: there were moments in which no decisions were innocent, in which all possible choices caused suffering.
   As the author reads pages in the lives of others, she reveals the intertwining of the personal and the political, of love and cruelty, of intimacy and betrayal. The result is a lyrical, touching, and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of how history moves and what history means.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307888822
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 01/21/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 729,344
Product dimensions: 12.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

MARCI SHORE, an associate professor of intellectual history at Yale, has spent much of her adult life in central and eastern Europe.  She is the author of Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation's Life and Death in Marxism, which won eight prizes, including a National Jewish Book Award.  She is also the translator of Michał Głowiński's Holocaust memoir The Black Seasons.

Read an Excerpt

The Taste of Ashes  
In April of 1995 I sat in a Prague cafe with Amanda, two days before the memorial mass she had arranged for Oskar. It was late. The spring was cold that year. We sat upstairs where it was dark and smoky, eating ice cream. Amanda insisted on paying for the ice cream because, as she said, she was "now an heiress." I was telling her about my young student, a smart girl with the rugged prettiness of a tomboy whose brown hair fell just below her chin. In an essay composed in her grasping English she wrote about the boy who had once held her hand and called her "sweetheart." One summer day he went off to his cottage in the countryside. When he returned he told her he had made love to an older girl. My student's tears and cigarettes, all of it too harsh for a fourteen-year-old girl. Her final sentence: You know, I think that life can be very cruel sometimes. And I had wanted to write on her paper: Oh, but you don't know, it gets so much worse!   But Amanda, the artist from New England whose Czech husband had just killed himself, told me, "No, that's it. That's as bad as it gets."   And I believed then that it was true.   Two days later I went with Amanda to a Catholic mass dedicated to Oskar, Oskar who had waited twenty-five years to return to Prague, only to find that he no longer had any home there. In the church tucked, as if concealed, behind Old Town Square, I took communion for the first time, although I was not a Catholic, although I was not even a Christian, although I did not believe in God.   Several hours later we were sitting in the apartment of Oskar's sister. She was matronly, prematurely aged, nothing like her brother, the stylish, cosmopolitan physicist. Oskar had been handsome, sexy well into middle age. His sister and brother-in-law lived on an upper floor of one of the many faceless high-rises built of gray concrete. In their time these socialist housing projects had created thousands of identical units for modern, single-family living. Now inside these run-down apartments there lingered the aura of communist-era bourgeois. On Oskar's sister's old wooden table there was food and wine, red wine in Bohemian crystal set against Amanda's beautiful silver hair. There were layers of aesthetic paradox: Amanda, the bohemian from Massachusetts, in the bourgeois communist apartment.   Oskar's brother-in-law poured the wine. Amanda and Oskar's friends, a woman named Korina and her husband, had come from Paris for the memorial service. They were scientists, young and attractive, eager to communicate. I translated, awkwardly, for Oskar's sister and brother-in-law.   Hours passed. In a few minutes it would be midnight. Amanda was consumed by the thought now: it was the first of May, the Czech holiday of love. "It was late in the evening, the first of May / May evening, the time of love / Voice of a dove calling to love / Where fragrance drifted from the pines." With these lines Karel Hynek M‡cha, Czech romanticism's greatest poet, had made it impossible for the communists to make the workers' holiday of May Day fully their own.   It was the first of May and Amanda wanted to give Oskar a gift.   We moved into the kitchen.   "Ask her for a pair of scissors," Amanda said to me, turning her head toward Oskar's unhappy sister.   I hesitated. I did not want to ask her, she would not want to give the American sister-in-law she barely knew a pair of scissors at a fragile moment. Amanda remained for her an alien, unfathomable creature from a decadent foreign world, with whom she shared no language, with whom she shared nothing but Oskar, who was now dead.   Amanda insisted.   "Why?" Oskar's sister asked.   I said nothing.   "Why?" she asked me again.   I shrugged, smiled weakly, Otto's sister brought the pair of scissors. I held Amanda's hand, and Korina, the scientist who had come from Paris to say goodbye to Oskar, took the pair of scissors in her hands. Amanda shut her eyes. Korina began to cut. A moment later she held between her fingers Amanda's long, silver ponytail. Beautiful, like sparkling ashes.   Now we left the kitchen and returned to the small living room where wineglasses still sat on the wooden table. I watched as Korina sat down on her knees on the wooden floor, reaching out to touch the porcelain. She put her finger into the urn and tasted Oskar's ashes.   In a moment Amanda was gone. She had fled the apartment, flown down the staircase. When I found her below on the dark Prague streets, her dress was already wet, the disembodied silver ponytail she held in her hand whisked about in the storm. Korina and her husband and I followed her, running drunkenly through Prague in the rain, Amanda clutching her ponytail, the rain-drenched silver turning to gray.

Table of Contents

Table of contents
Author’s Note
The taste of ashes
A wrinkle in time
“Hair is like garbage”
“Everything I know about people I learned in the camps”
“It was only a small revolution”
Pornography in Prague
“The human being is rather perverse”
Reason and conscience
A Galician summer
“Think about whether or not I was right”
The other side of Stalinism
The locomotive of History
Broken families
The eternally wandering Jew
The dead and the living
“But not in the ovens”
Children of the Revolution
The taste of caviar
“Everything was so unattractive
Unrequited love
A star of the stage
Tragedy and romance
Cast of Historical Figures

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“By sharing the emotional fervor of her many, often deep personal relationships with eastern Europeans, formed during ten years of travel and research in the region, Shore gets at the agony and guilt felt by some and the sublimation resorted to by others….[She] gives depth to this searching, personalized account by weaving into her story brief but deft and unobtrusive elements of historical context.” – Foreign Affairs

“Lively and interesting” – Washington Times

“As this brilliant and haunting work proves, the past is neither dead nor buried, especially for those who lived through the Communist era and their descendants….An outstanding retrospective.” – Booklist

“A mix of memoir, travelogue, and philosophical treatise, [The Taste of Ashes] is above all an anthropological study of a people living in a world obscured by cobwebs, more mindful of yesterday than today, where the future cannot be realized until the deaths of all those who witnessed the abyss.” – Publishers Weekly

“Shore gathers reflections of her intellectual journeys through the deeply scarred, still-grieving lands of Eastern Europe from the mid-1990s to the present….A fascinating grab bag of the author’s dogged research and personal interviews.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Diving through the kaleidoscope of betrayal that exists alongside the tourist lands of Krakow and Prague, Marci Shore talked to people the rest of us are content to forget, though once, not so long ago, we hung on their every word. Excavating the strata of their guilt and complicity in the crimes of Hitler and Stalin both, we confront over and over that most fundamental 20th century question: What would you do when asked to betray your neighbor?  The answer can only consist of further questions, and, luckily for her subject, Shore is a relentless interlocutor.”
Tom Reiss, author of The Black Count and The Orientalist

“Marci Shore has written a one-of-a-kind book - a personal, intellectual, literary and historical tour of contemporary central Europe - with something in it for anyone who wants to understand this fascinating part of the world.” – Anne Applebaum, author of Iron Curtain and Gulag

“With deep respect for what the historian can and cannot know and what the witness can and cannot share, Marci Shore has achieved something rare: a narrative history that is also a philosophy of history.  Her subject is Eastern Europe in the aftermath of  the Holocaust and Stalinism, but her stories of people and places – tragic, ironic, carnavalesque – have a universal appeal.” – Alice Kaplan, author of Dreaming in French

The Taste of Ashes is about more than the floodwaters of history; it's the story of those who learned to swim, those who didn't, and those still adapting to an era of accelerated change. This is a brilliant, lyrical and gripping book, one woven from stories that will linger in the minds of readers for years to come.” – Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market

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The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Super book if you want to enjoy the adventures of a researchers on the (mine) field! It's not frequent at all to get the feelings behind a book or a research project. Also, a nice overview of some of the recent issues on Eastern Europe and the legacy of Nazi Germany, Stalinist rule and antipolitics after the failure of the Marxist utopia/dystopia.