WHEN I WAS a little girl, my country held its first democratic election after more than a decade of military rule. The bald, mustachioed general who had led Pakistan for my entire life had died in a plane crash a few months earlier. A woman, the daughter of a previously slain prime minister, led her party to an electoral majority, and on a pleasant December morning we watched her sworn into office. This, we were told, was history. This was democracy. This was the beginning of freedom.
The people of my city, Karachi--particularly those who had voted for the new prime minister--decided to use their freedom right away. Large groups of them climbed onto motorbikes and into the backs of pickup trucks; they took over the city streets, waving flags and shooting firearms in the air. Everyone else, including my family, sat inside their houses, afraid. Within a few hours of the arrival of "freedom," my father and grandfather and mother were nostalgic for the days of tyranny. Dictatorship, they decided, was safer and more orderly than the chaos of democracy.
That sort of nostalgia is the subject of Dancing Bears, a new book by the Polish journalist Witold Szablowski. Refreshingly, the dancing bears promised in the title are not coy clickbait or mere metaphor but actual bears. In the style of the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapucinski, Szablowski offers a roving, acutely observed narrative on the truths, lies, and absurdities that accompany political transitions, especially the one from communism to democracy.
A dancing bear is not merely held captive. It has an iron ring painfully inserted into its nose, which the bear master uses to lead the animal around. This provides a persistent (and, in the trainer's view, crucial) reminder of who is boss. We learn this from Gyorgy Marinov, a trainer who in the first few pages of the book swears that he loved his bear, Vela, "like she was human" and that he made sure she never wanted for bread or chocolates or strawberries.
In 2007, as a condition of joining the European Union, Bulgaria's bears had to be freed. The process of liberating the animals, in which the poor gypsies who own them are made to give them to a nongovernmental organization called Four Paws, makes for the same sort of spectacle as do transitions to democracy in previously unfree places. In one story involving the Stanevs, a leading family in the bear-dancing profession, an animal named Misho refuses to get in the cage that is to transport...