Let’s start with a little background: I read this book a while ago. I’m not exactly sure how long “a while” is, but I think maybe the summer of 2009. And I wanted to write something about it, because it’s an interesting book, but then it got set on a shelf and I never returned to it, except to occasionally move it aside when reaching for my Chicago. So I sat myself down tonight, determined to finally conquer this task.

As a journalist based out of Athens for many years, Robert Kaplan’s familiarity with the region and his subject matter is easily apparent in his writing. Balkan Ghosts is a great combination of travelogue and journalism, drawing on history, current events, and personal experience. It’s designed for a trade audience in a country where most people, I am willing to bet, cannot locate Bulgaria on a map. And so in many ways, it’s a tremendously successful book: it’s readable, it’s intelligent, and it came out at a time (1993) when the Balkans had suddenly drawn international attention.

The downside of being timely, of course, is that it’s terribly easy to became dated in retrospect. My biggest problem with Balkan Ghosts is that there is very little discussion of Bosnia. From the perspective of 2010, this is an egregious omission that would be unforgivable. But for a journalist writing in 1992, when Bosnia had only just attempted independence and the war was still underway, the omission is somewhat more understandable. However, Amazon informs me that Picador released a new edition in 2005 that includes “Assorted commentary by the author,” so perhaps some of these issues have been addressed.

That said, the problem here is not solely with Bosnia. While the chapters on Greece are excellent and the chapters on Bulgaria and Romania are quite strong, the chapters on the former Yugoslavia are weak enough to suffer by comparison. In particular, Kaplan gives short shrift to the deeper history of the region. A trade book aiming to cover a region of wildly divergent experiences and histories can obviously be expected to gloss over more complex historical issues, but when the region is as complicated and as war-torn as Yugoslavia was in 1992, it behooves the author to provide an adequate setting for the work. While Kaplan attempts to explain these weaknesses away in his preface, the section still strikes me as something that was tacked on to appeal to an audience who had been reading about the collapse of Yugoslavia in the news every day.

I had other issues with the book, namely that Kaplan occasionally comes off as condescending towards the people and regions he visits, and that at other times he involves himself too much in the narrative. Overall, though, I found Balkan Ghosts to be a quick and illuminating read. Even now, it’s a challenge to find an accessible work on the Balkans, and there’s a reason this book has been in print for the better part of the past twenty years.

I just read over that last sentence, and now I find myself wishing that I had discovered this book around the same time I read Mark Mazower’s The Balkans, a fantastic little book you should definitely pick up. I wonder how the two would play against each other. Perhaps someday I’ll reread them both and enthrall you all with a riveting review essay. Yes, all two of you.

Advertisements