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East Bloc Drama From Front Row

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THE MAGIC LANTERN: THE REVOLUTION OF '89 WITNESSED IN WARSAW, BUDAPEST, BERLIN, AND PRAGUE By Timothy Garton Ash New York: Random House 156 pp., $17.95 `People, your government has returned to you.'

- Vaclav Havel

THAT Czechoslovakia's ebullient velvet revolution last fall was organized and conducted by a dissident playwright operating from a series of rooms beneath a theater called the Magic Lantern seems too perfect. Can art and nature and irony and justice all be so aligned?

They were last November in Prague. ``In a sense,'' writes Timothy Garton Ash, ``all of Prague became a Magic Lantern.'' The entire city glowed with a sudden awakening to an old Bohemian expression of religious reform: Pravda Vitez'i, or ``Truth shall prevail.''

The mass demonstrations, the factory strike committees, the improvised posters splattered everywhere, the theaters packed every evening for debate, the Civic Forum groups founded in schools and offices - all were expressions of men and women overthrowing the lies not only in the government and official press, writes Ash, but also in themselves, in the daily hypocrisy they had too long tolerated.

``The semantic occupation was as offensive to them as military occupation,'' he writes. Suddenly the people thirsted for a truer story: ``The long queue every morning in Wenceslas Square, lining up patiently in the freezing fog for a newspaper called The Free Word, was, for me, one of the great symbolic pictures of 1989.''

``The Magic Lantern'' is a short but substantial eyewitness account of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe (and one of the first accounts on that subject to reach United States stores). The book contains four vignettes - central moments in last fall's events in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and especially Prague - wrapped between an introduction and an excellent closing interpretive essay on the causes and meaning of East Europe's decisive rejection of Marxism.


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