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The Portable Europe : EUROPE by Flora Lewis (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 495 pp.)

October 18, 1987|Ronald Florence | Florence is a novelist and historian who reviews regularly for The Times. and

Flora Lewis got her job through the New York Times. Her Op-Ed page column, "Foreign Affairs," is presumably her qualification to write this country-by-country survey of Europe, as sweeping as its title. Despite her extended residence in Europe, her book owes more to research than to observation.

In a few essays, Lewis relates experiences of "this visitor." The circumlocution is indicative: She is interested in the famous and powerful, not the ordinary people and ordinary lives of a "Letter From Europe" feature in The New Yorker. When Lewis lacks personal experience of a country, she fills her allotted pages with history, sometimes as far back as Beowolf, or with cliches and tidbits that would get circled in red on a high school essay. Her chapter on France opens, "The Gallic cock says cocorico . . . and it crows for France." In the chapter on Czechoslovakia, she tells us that Bohemian is a name the French used for Gypsies (which is not quite right), and that it is no more correct than the English term derived from Egypt, since the Gypsies are really from Northern India. All very interesting, but since there are few Gypsies in Czechoslovakia, marginally relevant.

She is adept at compressing hundreds or even thousands of years of history into a few paragraphs, but round institutions are sometimes forced into square pigeonholes. Her analysis of Eastern Europe as the successor states of collapsed monarchies has no room for the complexities of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, in which the Hapsburg emperor, as king of Hungary, had already yielded full authority to the local lords long before the breakup of the monarchy. The Communist regime in the DDR did not reject the German heritage, as she asserts, but the Prussian heritage: The distinction is important.

The real problem with these nation-portraits is that they are often skin-deep and deterministic. We get all the old saws about the colors of flags in Ulster, but no sense of the atavistic expectations and values of local cultures that predate her sketchy history. It is difficult enough to render the history of a nation in a capsule without asking that history to explain every problem of a complex contemporary state.

Yet Lewis is more comfortable with political and anecdotal history than with people. She characterizes nationalities by describing the contents of putative national "identikits," all but guaranteeing that her observations are on the level of a police report: The Spanish are "excitable," the Portuguese are "stoic, melancholy." When the generalizations don't fit, she invokes Old Reliable: Eccentrics in England are "the exception that proves the rule."

For an American reader, the book is confusingly parochial. For the book researcher, it's quick and easy to compare the size of each country with an American state, but the reader who wants to know the relative sizes of Austria and Hungary better know the relative sizes of Maine and Indiana. At the same time, Lewis cites too many foreign terms in the original language, as if to suggest her fluency. Diners in Peoria do offer pie a la mode, but American readers who know the Wenceslas Square in Prague are likely only to be confused by Vaclavske Namesti.

It is hard not to wonder for whom this book would be useful, unless in these days of the plummeting dollar, there are still American tourists who take "if this is Tuesday it must be Belgium" trips to Europe. Even they may find that reading the chapters of Lewis' book at a breakneck pace produces a case of historical indigestion.

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