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Brendan HowleyLife Is Cheap, History Is Dear
"When Milosevic falls, there will be a reckoning that will shake Europe from Berlin to the Bosporus to Moscow," writes Brendan Howley, reviewing After the Rain: How the West Lost the East by Sam Vaknin.
For us in the West, the Balkans are a kind of condensed Russia, dark, knotted, unknowable. Macedonia, where author Sam Vaknin is an economics advisor to the government, is the fulcrum of the Balkans, historically the most polarized and violent of the Balkan mini-states; Macedonian terrorists fomented a guerilla war in the eerily beautiful country south of Serbia in 1912 and set in motion the events which culminated in the assassination of Archduke Franz-Josef and his wife in Sarajevo in July 1914.
The roundrobin Bosnian wars and the recent Kosovo campaign created a number of subgenres of writing about the Balkans: the exegesis of war crimes; deconstructions of the blood imperative expressed in ancient enmities still on the boil; propaganda by all sides. Most Western journalism on the Balkans is well-intentioned but often dangerously narrow in compass. In the media surrounding the bombing campaigns against the Serbs in 1993 and again in 1999, the West's reportage was often dismally biased, largely through ignorance, lack of real access, and the consequent temptation to scoop at all costs.
This opened the doors to the likes of the KLA, an avowed terrorist organization (now, it seems, armed and bankrolled by a multinational narcotics web) metamorphosed into a romantic army of liberation. That's but one example. Since 1993, one Pultizer Prize winner has openly questioned the objectivity of his own prize-winning (and policy-changing) work in Sarajevo, and a senior BBC-TV assignment editor has likewise questioned that esteemed newsgathering organization's failures - such as failing to balance reports of Serb atrocities at Sarajevo with Croat atrocities at Mostar - during the Bosnian wars.
No, the Balkans are not a place where one can simply parachute in and start writing and filming and hope to be relaying to an uncomprehending, comfortable audience at home something like the truth. But then what is journalism to be in a region so marinated in internecine conflict that there may well be no single reportable truth?
I first met a Macedonian in a Toronto parking garage late one winter's night after an evening at the theatre. He had maps and flags on his grimy wall and spoke at once poetically and brutally about his lifelong enemies so far away. He was in his late forties, a grandfather-to-be, who, when he discovered I had been to Serbia and Montenegro in 1993, wanted to know what I thought of the women there, rather as if I'd been to a new wing of some distant human zoo. He proceeded, in an easy, conversational way, to detail for some long minutes his hatred of these women, who had done nothing to him that he chose to mention. His rant was as chilling as it was base. I am by no means singling out Macedonians in this: I have been subjected to this off-hand barbarism dozens of times in the Balkans, as has many a writer. A Croat professor told me that Muslims are best set against one another, to save Christians the trouble of killing them off - and then served coffee on superb bone china, in a bizarre setpiece of hospitality. One effusive Serb priest told me much the same thing at a famous Montenegrin shrine one fine afternoon and a moment later invited me to lunch with his bishop. "A very cultured man," he told me, as if he himself knew what civilization is. I mention this because, in a profound way that Vaknin understands, life is very cheap in the Balkans because history is so dear. We in North America fail to understand this in a realistic way, because our own history is shrink-wrapped and diluted by the immigrant experience and vast geographic isolation. Rather, as Vaknin so rightly underlines in his dissections of the West's failure via the IMF to do very little correct in Russia but a great deal that's pernicious, we persist in believing in a culpably ignorant way that Balkan peacekeeping will be a finite commitment, or that streamlined neoliberal economics can be grafted onto deeply crippled societies and resurrect them in an eyeblink.
I agree with Vaknin that most of the Balkan diseases are not those of the heart, but rather stem from corruption and - much the same thing - prolonged economic idiocy. Tito has a great deal to answer for in the Balkans, not least the avalanche of paper debt he allowed the West to sell his kludged-together country in the name of keeping first Stalin and then Khrushchev and finally Brezhnev out. The average guy, as Vaknin well knows, does not go hunting for his neighbour with an AK-47 unless the wheels have well and truly come off his world. When, eleven years after Tito died, the fiscal fiction that was Yugoslavia disemboweled itself, the bloodthirstiness was rooted in religious bigotry, that's true, but hate was the symptom, not the disease. One should never forget that the first war in Yugoslavia was a short and sharp one, fought for the Slovenian customs posts on the Austrian frontier, fitting metaphor for the economic disaster suppurating under the Yugoslav skin.
What distinguishes Vaknin's writings on the Balkans from those before him? He is an Israeli, trained in physics, with supplemental degree work in financial theory. His technical mindset and skeptical but humane Jewish ethos permeate his writing. Both are exceedingly useful in deconstructing the mess the pseudoscience of Communism left behind in the countries where he's worked, and the mess that Western pseudoscience of the New World Order/IMF sort is currently brewing.
Most writers who have taken on the Balkans with some proficiency have been English or English-educated: Rebecca West, Nora Beloff, Neal Ascherson, Misha Glenny. Vaknin's considerable intellectual armory reminds me of that of the ex-MOSSAD people I met in Poland in the early 1990s, retired spooks now running trading houses: utterly realistic, Talmudically concise in their opinions, and damn relentless. Vaknin is living in a political hothouse in Macedonia; his fertile output for Central Europe Review is fired by the urgency I recall when I first worked in post-communist Poland: events demand recording, but the sheer rate of change of the society itself is as draining as it is exhilarating. I admire Vaknin's ability to keep his intellectual balance, no mean feat in the circumstances. He is in the right place at the right time, because when Milosevic falls, there will be a reckoning that will shake Europe from Berlin to the Bosporus to Moscow. What will the West do if there is a Serb civil war? Or a Serb incursion in Montenegro, Serbia's last link to the Adriatic - a mobilization requiring only that the barracks gate be open for the tanks to roll into Podgorica and Cetinje?
My father urged me to prefer small books over thick tomes, arguing that small books meant the author saw clearly enough to write precisely. It's advice I have rarely had cause to regret. After the Rain is the title of the most famous Macedonian film of the past decade, a circular parable of memory and blood feud and journalism that many film people of my acquaintance swore was a new kind of storytelling. I am not so sure, but I do know it lived on in my imagination for days after I saw it. I have the same memory of Vaknin's small and beautifully produced book.
After the Rain is that rarest of reading experiences: principled and thoughtful and irritating and prescient, all at once. Vaknin will be proved right or wrong as history grinds on in the Balkans, but his is a book I will return to.
—Blue Ear: Global Writing Worth Reading