Amidst a sea of often wildly inaccurate and turgid rubbish churned out by hacks eager to make a quick few bob in the wake of Romania’s 1989 revolution, one of the few genuinely readable accounts of Romania at the time was that which appeared in Robert Kaplan’s excellent Balkan Ghosts. A sweeping tour of the entire Balkan peninsula Balkan Ghosts was ironically limited by the sheer breadth of its overall scope: each country, including Romania, gets just a chapter or two. So vividly written was it that you were left wanting a lot more, as it was clear Kaplan had further insight to add.
In his latest book, In Europe’s Shadow (subtitled Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond) Romania very much takes centre stage and we at last get to find out what else Kaplan has to say about the country we call home. Rather disappointingly, Kaplan doesn’t have as much to say as we’d expected, which is probably why he feels the need to make exactly the same point (Romania must rediscover its past before it can have a future) over and over and over and over and over again.
Neither a conventional history nor a travelogue In Europe’s Shadow tries to look at Romania’s past, present and future through the prism of those who matter most: its people. Admirably, Kaplan is not the kind of author to sit in his hotel and pass judgement on a country he barely understands. Kaplan has visited Romania many times since the 1970s and clearly knows a thing or two. He also gets out and about. What makes parts of the book so dull is the appalling choice of interviewees.
Are we really going to learn anything new from Ion Iliescu, Mircea Geoana or Victor Ponta?
What’s more, Kaplan has a habit of reporting the words of a string of nameless ‘friends’ and ‘companions’. We are not for one moment suggesting Kaplan has made these people up, just that sometimes it all appears a little too convenient to have a companion standing by with the perfect quote to complement your own train of thought.
Indeed, convenience is a theme of the book. In one instance we are even told how the customers in a Iasi (which he throughout refers to as Jassy) cafe are talking in Italian and French, immediately after Kaplan has learned about how well Romanian students absorb foreign languages.
With little of any note to say about contemporary Romania (besides the fact that Romania must rediscover its past bla bla bla) the book is at its best when looking back at the Romania of the 1970s and 1980s. Kaplan’s description of Caru cu bere circa 1985 is marvellous:
The chapter on Moldova (Republic of) is also rather good. Describing Chisinau as a city where ‘the women dress with elegance but the men look like slobs’ is little short of genius.
Kaplan also succeeds in writing perhaps the clearest and most succinct summary of the fascist Ion Antonescu regime we have ever perhaps read. We also smiled when we discovered that his view of the Legionnaire Movement matches ours: pseudo-religious terrorist fanatics who were to Christianity what Isis are to Islam. He then blots his copybook by interviewing the notorious historian Neagu Djuvara (a leading Legionnaire idealogue in the 1930s who, although he publicly disassociated himself from the Legionnaires in 1943, continued to fill a a number of roles in Antonescu’s government). Kaplan has sympathy for very few Romanian historical figures, with one notable and worthy exception: Iuliu Maniu, the liberal colossus who died at Sighet prison in 1953 who he rightly identifies as the 20th century’s greatest Romanian.
As is so often the case with American writers, there is something of an air of snobbish superiority running through the book, although it’s slightly more forgivable coming from Kaplan, a man of rather humble background (although his volunteering for the Israeli army – a fact he loves to remind us of – raises more questions), than it is from certain others we shall not bother to name. Kaplan also fails to reach any real conclusion about where Romania, as a country, is bound (beyond the fact that the country needs to rediscover its past OH STOP IT). He at times appears absurdly optimistic about Romania’s future, while just a page or two later he views the country as irretrievably fatalist and superstitious, condemned to be poorly led forever. After this week’s events we are inclined to agree with the latter premise.