Balkan Ghosts

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robert D. Kaplan has been a traveling journalist since the 1970’s and has written books about Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Unlike “adrenaline junkies” who flock to the latest hot news story, Kaplan strives to understand the history of the places he visits. “Throughout the 1980s, I had been coming as a journalist to Yugoslavia,” he writes. “It was a lonely task because few were interested in what was going on in the place, or where it might be headed.” If his insistence on his prescience and doggedness is sometimes tiresome, his pride seems well earned.

Though he hits a bit hard on a hackneyed notion of “West” versus “East” (ill-defined terms in this book as elsewhere), and though his perfunctory conclusion that “The Enlightenment was, at last, breaching the gates of these downtrodden nations. A better age would have to follow” rings false, BALKAN GHOSTS resonates with interesting ideas, people, and history. Kaplan generously shares his infatuation with what he calls “this century’s greatest travel book,” Rebecca West’s BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON (1941) based on West’s travels in Yugoslavia in the 1930’s. He conveys the history of the interesting city of Salonika in Greece (until World War II populated overwhelmingly by Sephardic or “Spanish” Jews); he insists (rightly, it seems) that despite facile Western notions Greece belongs to the Balkans, thereby making sense of that country’s paranoid refusal to recognize...

(The entire section is 403 words.)