My Return to the Balkans
by Simon Winchester
HarperCollins, 1999 272 pp $13
The Road to Kosovo: A Balkan Diary
by Greg Campbell
Westview, 1999 228 pp $15
Only the Nails Remain:
Scenes From the Balkan Wars
by Christopher Merrill
Rowman & Littlefield, 1999 424 pp $27.25
My War Gone By, I Miss It So
by Anthony Loyd
Penguin, 1999 336 pp $14
AT THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Balkan wars rumbled to a close, a new field opened to the West European imagination: the Balkan peninsula of southeastern Europe, a terra incognita on Europe’s periphery yet touched by the Ottoman Orient. As Vesna Goldsworthy recounts in Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, in that period there was an explosion of novels, poetry, and travelogues set in these little known territories—lands presumed to be primitive, mysterious, and invested with supernatural peril. Most famously, Bram Stoker, an Irish novelist who had never traveled in the Balkans, set Dracula in a Transylvania he described as an “imaginative whirlpool” into which was gathered “every known superstition in the world.” The Balkans, it seems, had become the dark mirror in which Westerners saw themselves without seeing themselves, as though human violence, irrationality, and sensuality could be ensconced safely in those distant mountain passes. Perhaps such impulses—seductive, universal, frightening—could be contained, even safely visited from time to time and then gratefully left behind.
How quaintly turn-of-the-century British, we might now think. But the wars of the Yugoslav succession brought a resurgence of adventurers’ tales from the same region, with sometimes similar overtones. Starting with Robert Kaplan, whose 1989 Balkan Ghosts famously defined the Balkans as “a time-capsule world: a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced visions and ecstasies,” a seemingly endless parade of Western journalists has reproduced the stereotypes and historical clichés that so marked Western journalism about the Balkans at the turn of the last century. It is no accident that in tandem with this outpouring, in the last five years we have also seen a burgeoning scholarly literature chronicling the role of Western projections in shaping the perception, and self-perception, of Balkan cultures—most notably, Maria Todorova’s magisterial Imagining the Balkans.
That said, real wars have just been fought on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and many of those who chronicled those wars were real journalists whose aim was not to belittle the Balkans but to expose and explain that tragedy to a mass readership. Journalists’ work is never perfect...
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