Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Through Another Europe (2009) | Edited by Andrew Hammond

Text by Marcus Tanner   
When Henry Blount journeyed through Bosnia in the 1630s, two things struck him: the purity of the water and the great height of the Bosnians, which, he noted, “made me suppose them the offspring of those old Germans noted by Tacitus and Caesar for their huge size.”

Bosnians descended from Germans? Sounds doubtful. Blount’s account, the earliest in this collection of English-language travel writing on the Balkans, only suggests that from the start the English have often got their facts muddled when it comes to this part of Europe.

Never important for the English in terms of trade or empire, they would appear to be have been rare birds of passage, at least to the interior of south-eastern Europe, until the nineteenth century, when a few hardy pioneers like Byron made Greece and Albania fashionable.

As Through Another Europe’s editor, Andrew Hammond, explains, the sudden rush of British visitors in the mid-to-late nineteenth century did not necessarily lead to much enlightenment. Patronising and condescending, for the most part these visitors entertained their readers by drawing sharp contrasts between the alleged barbarism of the locals and their own, highly superior civilisation.

Much attention was lavished on incidences of banditry and on such supposedly picturesque details as women’s costumes, table manners and the appearance of markets. Little or no effort was made to describe what made these societies tick.

Hammond notes a marked change in attitude to the Balkans that took place after the First World War, after which the condescending style gives way to a more thoughtful and engaging approach.

The excerpt from Rose Wilder Lane’s 1922 account of a journey though northern Albania, for example, is a delight. So is Walter Starkie’s 1933 description of the gypsies he met near Sibiu, and R H Bruce Lockhart’s interview with Tsar Boris of Bulgaria.

The arrival of the Second World War and the subsequent descent of the Iron Curtain more or less curtailed this school of writing.

It was less easy now, and possibly less interesting, to interview the new regional leaders than it had been to chat to Tsar Boris. Meanwhile, the vibrant, self-contained peasant culture that had so long fascinated folklorists and sociologists began to fade as land was collectivised and the villagers herded into the towns. The opportunities for westerners to travel freely were, in any case greatly reduced in Cold War Bulgaria and Romania. In Albania they became almost non-existent.

It was the fall of the Berlin wall, revolution in Romania and the outbreak of war in former Yugoslavia that brought writers hurrying back to the Balkans. But the quality of their efforts was mixed. Many had an even shakier grasp of Balkan history than Blount had had, back in the 1630s. Once again, there was a renewed stress on the “barbarity” of the region, its senseless “tribal” quarrels, the vast and supposedly unbridgeable differences with the West, and so on.

Hammond picks out embarrassing examples of this approach, alongside some unusual items from a slightly earlier period, such as John Gunther’s description of the grim Belgrade of the late 1940s and a thought-provoking snapshot of Bulgaria from a few years earlier, just before the imposition of full-on communism.

The book ends on a high note, with Will Myer’s delightful and sensitive account of an encounter with dervishes in the backstreets of Skopje. Clearly, some English-language writers on the Balkans got it right.

This article is courtesy of Balkan Insight, the online publication of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, which contains analytical reports, in-depth analyses and investigations and news items from throughout the region covering major challenges of the political, social and economic transition in the Balkans.




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