The search for books which (try to) capture the soul of a country is an increasingly fascinating endeavour for me. Such books cannot be contrived novels or dry histories – the few exemplars I come across are generally travelogues containing a mixture of encounters (with contemporary or historical figures) and feel for landscapes and cultural contexts……
Until now none of the english-language books on Romania (one of the dozen or so countries I’ve lived in over the past 26 years) has been able to do the country justice – although there are a couple of very impressive histories (Boia and Djuvara); two very challenging takes on its post 1989 politics (by Tom Gallagher -Theft of a nation – Romania since Communismand Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong; and two travelogues (one from the indefatigable Irish writer, Dervla Murphy - Transylvania and Beyond (1992) - as she ventured into a country whose borders were open for the first time for 50 years; and a delightful 1998 book produced by a Frenchman (with photos by an Italian – and accessible on google) The Romanian Rhapsody; an overlooked corner of Europe by D. Fernandez and F Ferranti (2000)
But Robert D. Kaplan’s In Europe’s shadow: two Cold Wars and a thirty-year journey through Romania and beyond (2016) now slips into top place of a unique annotated list I prepared 2 years ago of books which anyone seriously interested in Romania needs at least to know about. You’ll find that list in Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey
He reveals in the Prologue that his first foray into the country was in the 1970s as a bemused backpacker in central europe; but that in 1981, as a 29-year old with few career opportunities, he spotted a hole in the western media coverage of south-eastern europe and took a flight to Bucharest in what seemed then a forlorn hope of whipping up some media interest in the area…..
A good review captures the poetry of the book very well -
Kaplan’s writing is like the places he visits. It’s a terrain, a concentrated expression of a particular part of the world as he sees it, a very personal account though steeped in broad historical knowledge and familiarity with a wide range of sources. Kaplan’s sentences are like streets that lead us around a place we come to know through his eyes, either only through his eyes if it’s a place few people know (such as Romania)…….
It’s not a question of whether he’s got it right or wrong (Does the landscape really look as he describes it? Is his history of a town or a local population or a people accurate?).
There is no right or wrong in this kind of writing. What we get is Kaplan’s view of the world and what matters is whether it compels our attention, becomes memorable and integrated into our own understanding. After all, we all know so little of it first-hand. Maybe one day we’ll go here or there, or at least in the neighbourhood, and we’ll know if it looks and feels familiar.
Kaplan is not a tourist, he’s a traveller. He doesn’t look, he sees. He’s not a visitor going from monuments to battlefields but one who lives his travels, immersing himself in every new surroundings, picking up—what makes us envious—new friends and colleagues that continue with him through decades.
This is the fourth Kaplan book I’ve read. As he explain in this Youtube presentation his latest book is a new departure with previous books (covering Asia, the middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean) giving horizontal slices to regions but this one being a “vertical” take on one country to which he has returned frequently in his life and by which he is clearly moved…
There can’t be many Americans who know as many Romanians or as well as Kaplan, who is, so far as an outsider can get, inside as well as outside Romanian society and politics. And there may be no American who is so much simultaneously a travel writer and a geopolitical analyst, and happy to be so. When he discovered Romania in 1981 during the Ceausescu Communist years, “I felt that I was finally beginning to do what I always was meant to.” Kaplan, in other words, became not just a travel writer or a serious scholar. He had a vocation.
"In Europe’s shadow" amounts to a kind of historical anthropology plus geopolitics, a deep study of a particular country and people. The point is to understand Romania itself and to use it as a way to apprehend Europe’s complex past. Romanian history involves the West and East, the geography between Western Europe and Greater Russia, more precisely the web of historical patterns and contemporary geopolitics between Central Europe and Eastern Europe. It’s a story that continues to be relevant today………………..
Those familiar with Kaplan’s work know that he’s as much a travel writer in the grand style as a geopolitical Realist whose studies of international relations and political leadership are also in the grand style, stretching intellectually over centuries and continuities of ideas.
As for the focus on Romania, it “was my master key for the Balkans... the Poland of southeastern Europe in terms of size, demography, and geopolitical location...” In Europe’s shadow is a demanding book for the lay reader but it shows how, at one and the same time, Romania is distinctive and a key to a broader and deeper understanding of contemporary Europe.
Most of all, Kaplan’s work exemplifies rare intellectual, moral and political engagement with the political order—and disorder—of our world.
My charitable interpretation of this omission is that Kaplan is not all that interested in contemporary Romania - despite a conversation with the previous PM and President. Readers might have expected more than his superficial impressions of new constructions; the brightness (or otherwise) of paint or the lawn upkeep of Bucharest's parks...and to find some allusions at least to the scale of political corruption and the apparent success in the last 2-3 years of the new judicial system in throwing politicians in jail.....
But geo-politics, it seems, sees such issues as fairly minor..........