Thursday, July 13, 2017

Irreview, Book Review: Balkan Ghosts

Whew.  It's not often that I read a book and am nearly floored.  I suppose it's happened with a few novels (Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and Dan Simmons' Ilium and Olympos), but I'm hard-pressed to recall one non-fiction book that's done that to me.

Well, I was hard-pressed.  No longer.

Robert D. Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts is ostensibly a travel book about, well, traveling through the former Yugoslavia (while it was still Yugoslavia), Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece.  And I suppose it is that, but, oh... it is so, so much more.  Kaplan writes of the region's history, its anthropology, and its geopolitics in such a natural and seamless manner, it reads very closely to a good novel.  Both a storyteller and a journalist, Kaplan also seamlessly transitions between the subjective and the objective, while remaining crystal clear about which is which so as not to deceive the reader.

I had been familiar with the series of wars that broke up Yugoslavia.  I have striking memories of pictures from the overthrow of Ceausescu in Romania (I believe I still may have the Time or Newsweek magazine that showed the man dead on its cover).  And I have vague recollections of the dark and violent period of 80s and early 90s Greece.

But, really... I had no fucking idea.

Let's back up a moment.

A few years ago, I had written a screenplay called Theorem, which largely takes place in the Balkans (Croatia, specifically).  A friend of mine came to a table read of my script and remarked that nothing in it felt "Balkan."  We had a long discussion about what that meant, and he recommended Kaplan's book to me.  So, I bought it.  And when it arrived, I flipped through it.  I flipped through the small section about Croatia the most, but I didn't give the book any due diligence and basically left it to gather dust on a bookshelf for two or three years.

Fast-forward to a week or so ago.  I'm in the middle of my renaissance of reading, and I have to work on another screenplay (The Hand That Feeds You) that was presenting character problems.  After having read Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story" and Graham Greene's The Quiet American, I felt that I should read something more contemporary to see if I can fit anything into a specific character.  And that caused me to choose to read Balkan Ghosts (there is a similar motivation to rewatch the William Friedkin movie, The Hunted).

Wow.  I wish I would've read Balkan Ghosts when my friend told me to.

It is... profound, to say the least.  The hows, whens, and whys of what the Balkans have gone through and will go through are presented with depth, all the under the auspices of Mr. Kaplan "traveling" through the region.  Cultural hatreds are not only well-explained, but made obvious, both in their motivations and their executions.  And Kaplan's predictions for what lie in wait for the various ethnic groups and nations... prescient, indeed.

While I am not much closer to being an expert on the Balkans than I was before I read this, the narratives ring and read true.  I've no doubt someone of one of these Balkan civilizations would read the book and claim something along the lines of, "Oh, this guy got (my) culture wrong, but he's nailed these others."

It is that uncomfortable a subject matter.  And, yet, presented so matter-of-factly, with just the right amount of narrative paint, that you can't help but feel comfortable with even the most heinous accounts depicted (or theorized) in Balkan Ghosts.

That stated, it is a relatively dense book.  It's not dense writing, per se, but I found myself slogging through it at times, or having to reread entire pages.  Strangely, none of that took away from the enjoyment of this book for me.  Indeed, going over pages more than once probably even helped my grasp of it.

Needless to say, I love it.  So much so, I've purchased two more of Mr. Kaplan's books (including a "sequel" to Balkan Ghosts).

If you've any interest in the Balkans, or history, anthropology, or geopolitics in general, do yourself a massive favor and get this book.

Rating: 20 (Style: 4 stars; Substance: 5 stars)

Things I Learned:
  • What I've been calling "editorial journalism" (and some others might refer to as "fake news") has a formal name: Gonzo journalism.  I'm sure I've heard the term before.  I've just never put two and two together.
  • "Ruritania" is a fictional Central European country from a trilogy of books written in the late 19th century, and since used in the writings of others.  In the academic world, scholars use "Ruritania" to discuss concepts and theories regarding the real world, so as to avoid insulting any one nation or people.
  • Hungarian peoples are also known as Magyar, and that is, in fact, the Hungarian language.
  • Chaika - a Russian car company, apparently known for their distinctive limousines.

New Words:
  • lignitea usually brownish black coal intermediate between peat and bituminous coal; especially :  one in which the texture of the original wood is distinct —called also brown coal
  • apsea projecting part of a building (such as a church) that is usually semicircular in plan and vaulted - (I actually knew this one already, but I hadn't realized it until after I looked it up, so I've included it.)
  • cognomenthe third of usually three names borne by a male citizen of ancient Rome; a distinguishing nickname or epithet
  • hagiographer (hagiography) - biography of saints or venerated persons
  • irredentisma political principle or policy directed toward the incorporation of irredentas within the boundaries of their historically or ethnically related political unit
  • charwomana cleaning woman especially in a large building
  • palimpsestwriting material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased
  • pogroman organized massacre of helpless people; specifically :  such a massacre of Jews
  • desultorily (desultory) - marked by lack of definite plan, regularity, or purpose
  • Niloticof or relating to the Nile or the peoples of the Nile basin
  • gimcracka showy object of little use or value
  • hourione of the beautiful maidens that in Muslim belief live with the blessed in paradise
  • dunhaving a slightly brownish dark gray color :  having the color dun; marked by dullness and drabness

The Profound:

This is a new section that is basically just tidbits of information or slices of philosophy or clever quotes that sit well with me.
  • "Mythology is what never was, but always is." - Stephen of Byzantium
  • "Istanbul" is a corruption of a Greek phrase, "is tin poli" (to the city) - which is hilarious, given the reasons the Turks renamed Constantinople.

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