Land of mystery

Another Fool in the Balkans: in the footsteps of Rebecca West

Tony White <em>Cadogan Guides, 255pp

The Balkans are back in the news. The mysterious, lonely death of Slobodan Milosevic in his cell at the UN detention centre in the Hague has spawned a raft of conspiracy theories. Was he taking illicit medicines to counter-act drugs prescribed for his heart trouble, trying to make himself ill enough to be sent to Moscow for specialised treatment and then stay there for good with his family? Was he poisoned by sinister forces? Or did he follow his father, Svetozar, and mother, Stanislava, in committing suicide? Milosevic's death, like his life, seems an enigma.

For many, former Yugoslavia remains mysterious, too. It is a land of great beauty, from the azure sea lapping its coast to the lakes and mountains of Bosnia. And yet, for much of its history, it has been a scene of horror.

It is a brave writer who presumes to walk in Rebecca West's slipstream, even six decades after she published Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a book rightly regarded as one of the greatest ever works of travel literature. West journeyed the length and breadth of Yugoslavia on the eve of the Second World War, producing a dazzling kaleidoscope that blends passionate first-person narrative with enthralling diversions on everything from folklore to geography, theology to landscape. It is a richly textured memoir that remains essential reading for anyone venturing into the Balkans.

There is a great book to be written about a journey following in West's footsteps, visiting the places she did, tracking down the descendants of those she met, and comparing former Yugoslavia now with the country then. Tony White has some credentials to unpeel the place: he speaks Serbo-Croat, the old national language (now split into two steadily more mutually incomprehensible dialects), and he co-edited an anthology of fiction from Serbia and Croatia.

White's book is based on a series of journeys he made to the region over a period of five years. He is a lively writer with a fair eye for detail. His style is brisk and accessible, and his affection for the countries he writes about is clear. He begins in Slavonia, the great flat plain of eastern Croatia, and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the Yugoslav wars. From there he travels to the Ser- bian capital of Belgrade, the Croatian capital of Zagreb, and up and down the Croatian coast to Split, Zadar and the Istrian peninsula.

White's travels make for a good read but, inevitably, his work does not match up to West's original. His thoughts and observations, although often interesting, are too scattered to be fully developed. Most of the people he meets seem to be youngish hipsters, rooted in an artistic milieu similar to his own, usually in Zagreb or Belgrade. There are few, if any, peasants, nationalists, soldiers, monks, pensioners or manual workers.

The book does contain some entertaining vignettes, such as when White tells a room full of Croatian war veterans that he is not staying in Zagreb, but going to Belgrade the following day. The discussion is quickly wrapped up. The material on Istria is extensive - perhaps understandably, as its mix of Croatian, Italian and Slovene cultures is beguiling.

But Istria is the periphery. It is surprising that there is no material on Bosnia, the dark heart of former Yugoslavia, to which West devoted a substantial part of her book. If you seek an understanding of how a country that was once the most sophisticated in eastern Europe descended into bloody war, you can-not write about former Yugoslavia yet ignore Bosnia. I don't want to be too critical, as the more readable books about the Balkans there are, the better. But a wider geographical range and deeper reflection would only have improved Another Fool in the Balkans.

Adam LeBor is the author of Milosevic: a biography and City of Oranges: Arabs and Jews in Jaffa, published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Trident