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Baroque Balkans
by Derek Lundy

If we think Bosnia has been bad, wait until the southern Balkans explode. That's Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Kosova, and Bulgaria. The status quo there is "unjust and unstable", Fred Reed believes. In Salonica Terminus, he produces persuasive evidence of eventual war in that region, and, in the process, fully justifies the book's subtitle.
The elements of that nightmare are ethnic nationalism, blood feud, a tumult of religions, forced population transfers, an undifferentiated sense of time-a fourteenth-century slaughter is as immediate as last year's. These aren't unique to the Balkans, of course. In my native Belfast, people kill one another to avenge the injuries of the seventeenth century as much as of this one. The savage and unyielding partisans that Reed talks to in the cities or villages of Macedonia and Albania sound to me just like the "hard men" of the Shankill or the Ardoyne.
But the scale of things in the Balkans makes the conflicts there much more terrible. It's difficult to comprehend such hatred and intransigence on so large a scale. In a region with few moderates, where hardly anyone seems capable of breaking out of each particular national version of history and truth, there is no middle ground to aim for, and no prospect of compromise. There's only "us" and "the other".
Reed is a Governor General's Award-winning translator of Greek writers (Kazantzakis's Journey to the Morea, for example), as well as a journalist. Salonica Terminus is based on two trips he made to the southern Balkans in late 1994, and the spring of 1995. He has also spent previous periods of time living and travelling in the region, and has immersed himself in its history and current political and intellectual life. Drawing on thirty-five years' worth of friends and contacts, he seems able to get to anyone for an interview: Greek professors and writers; Albanian archbishops and gunmen; an underground political leader in Kosova; Macedonian zealots, both Greek and Serb.
As a result, Salonica Terminus is saturated with historical, cultural, and political detail, which, while fascinating, can be frustrating as well. On one hand, the reader who tunnels through the accumulation of information-interviews, travel observations, long historical digressions, dissections of the chaotic and complex politics of the region-emerges with a vivid and enlarged sense of how the southern Balkans have arrived at their current state of dangerous disequilibrium. It's a real compliment to Reed that after reading his book, newspaper accounts of the region's troubles seem shallow and ill-informed. From his descriptions of cultural minutiae like Greek rebetico music-the Turkish-Byzantine hybrid that "expresses.the country's divided soul"-to his account of the reduction of Salonica from the cosmopolitan and tolerant, mainly Jewish, second city of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires to a diminished, drab, and ethnically cleansed provincial town, Reed makes us feel intensely the relentless rush of history, and the chaotic complexity of the present.
On the other hand, there's far too much of this specificity in the book. I often found myself irritably questioning just who it was written for. I assume that a specialist in Balkan affairs would find it useful background material, at least intermittently. But the general reader, even one with a lively interest, and an academic background in history and politics, often bogs down in Reed's accounts of centuries of Balkan history, or in his descriptions of the contemporary Greek or Albanian political scene.
It's true that Reed makes no claims for organized analysis or what he calls "straight-line travel" writing. These have been bypassed, he says, for the "random, chaotic fascination of events,.the baroque pleasures of looping back, of retracing steps." The result: a piling-on of events, people, and history. And the author's style doesn't help the slog-ultimately rewarding though it is-through the book's minutiae. A formal reflection of his "baroque pleasures", Reed's voice is too elaborate, tangled, and metaphorical for my taste, and is often verbose.
This style also creates difficulty in interpreting his views on how to explain the present Balkan mess. Who, or what, is responsible: the inhabitants themselves, with their long memories, violent cultures, and truncated political skills? the great powers, meddling as usual? nationalism? the failure of communist "internationalism"? Is it all simply an unavoidable consequence of history? Probably all of the above. The reader longs for a few straightforward declarative sentences that will proceed logically, name names, analyse events. But Reed has warned us that he's not in the analysis game.
We take what we can get out of Salonica Terminus. That doesn't include much linear explanation or lucid reporting. But the ingenious and persistent reader can draw out of its welter of history, its profusion of observations and interviews, an enriched sense of the origins, the texture, and the intractability of the Balkan tragedy.

 Derek Lundy is a Toronto writer.


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