As a literary object, Last Days in Old Europe is a not fully resolved curiosity: half a history, half a love letter to the author’s youth. It nevertheless has historical significance and a stream of entertaining stories; and as the price of admission through that secret door into a part of Europe whose riches we British know little of, from monumental Trieste where, as Proust said, “les couchers de soleil sont tristes”, via Vienna, that city now rather too small for its imperial trousers, to the ancient crossing-point of Prague, where travellers rest and messages about the future have always floated in the air, it’s certainly worth it.
Richard Bassett is no ordinary journalist. An accomplished musician with a doctorate in architectural history, he is also a gourmet whose appetite is not limited to food and drink. Irrepressibly sociable, he has a remarkable talent for making friends with almost anyone he stumbles across. He is a dedicated observer of people and things, whom no detail escapes.
In this book, he takes the reader on what at times seems an aimless ramble around various locations in central Europe. Yet beneath the apparently frivolous surface lurks a purposeful and sober commentary on the changes that took place in the area during the final decade of the Soviet empire.
The book is actually about two spectres, and the other is that of the old Soviet bloc. From Ljubljana Bassett went to Vienna as the incredibly young and inexperienced correspondent of The Times. In those dying days of the Soviet system (although no one really knew it), the city was a nest of spies. One who kept company with the foreign journalists was a tall and spectacular blonde woman photographer called Helga, who — it turned out — doubled as a waitress at Demel’s in Vienna, where the establishment dined, and tripled (it even later turned out) as an East German spy.
A vastly enjoyable exception to the rule is Richard Bassett’s charming, imaginative and elegantly written memoir of his adventures in central Europe, for many years as a correspondent for The Times... His strange section on the Velvet Revolution in Prague ... is way off beam and ignores recent evidence from Moscow and Prague... Yet the book is full of insight about the death of two empires, the Habsburg and the Soviet. In the age of nostalgia we have now entered, when to so many people almost everywhere the past seems so golden, it strikes a remarkably topical chord.
An enjoyable if impressionistic account becomes kaleidoscopic as Bassett flits from city to city, chronicling demonstrations and deals as well as curious personalities and cultural quirks. Readers might wish for rather less about his social life, and rather more reflection about the causes and effects of the extraordinary, peaceful collapse of a totalitarian empire. How far were the dreams of those days realised? How many of today’s ills stem from mistakes made then, such, perhaps, as the failure to uproot fully the old communist power structures, and to track the strange disappearance of their money? Pedants will find plenty to quibble about too, just as they did about his reporting at the time. That did not bother Bassett then, and it will not trouble most readers now.