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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 former Yugoslav Macedonia; and he memorably encounters the legendary Australian communist writer Wilfred Burchett, who settled and died in Bulgaria.

“Write books, Robby! Go deep,” a Bulgarian friend implores Kaplan. “Be like Wilfred Burchett. Don’t be a hack!” As someone who has spent plenty of time observing communism firsthand, Kaplan surely is right to insist on its political and moral bankruptcy. He believes in “Western” enlightenment and is less critical of—indeed gives little attention to—Western-style corporate capitalism. Perhaps this is as it should be, since the present state of the Balkans hardly invites the foreign investment many post-socialist countries hope for and some fear.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, February 15, 1993, p. 1028.

Business Week. April 12, 1993, p.15.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, February 1, 1993, p.119.

Library Journal. CXVIII, February 15, 1993, p.179.

The New Leader. LXXVI, June 14, 1993, p.17.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, March 28, 1993, p.3.

The New Yorker. LXIX, April 26, 1993, p. 1’19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, March 29, 1993, p.30.

The Wall Street Journal. May 13, 1993, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, March 28, 1993, p.1.

Balkan Ghosts

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The region of southeastern Europe known as the Balkans returned with a vengeance to newspaper readers’ awareness during the early 1990’s. At the beginning of the twentieth century, with bitter ethnic wars in 1912 and 1913, the region had spawned a term, “balkanization,” that entered regular English usage. One Webster’s dictionary defines the verb “to Balkanize” as “to break up into small, mutually hostile political units, as the Balkan States after World War I.” Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was the site of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria—the catalyst of that war. Some of World War II’s bitterest and bloodiest fighting took place in Yugoslavia, between the Ustasha secret police of the Fascist state of Croatia and the Partizan resistance led by Marshal Josip Tito.

Tito’s highly personalized Communist dictatorship and his talent for keeping a political balance among Croats, Serbs, Muslims, and other groups kept Yugoslavia unified and relatively stable until, in the wake of revolutions elsewhere in Europe, it collapsed. In December of 1991, Croatia and Slovenia, two of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics, declared themselves independent. Their recognition by the European Community—insisted on by Germany, the EC’s most...

(The entire section is 2,398 words.)