Another Fool in the Balkans: In the Footsteps of Rebecca West by Tony White
Tony White’s interest in the Balkans has already resulted in a short story anthology - 2005’s Croatian Nights, a mixture of work by writers from Croatia and the UK, co-edited by White, Matt Thorne and Borovoj Radakovic. His latest book finds him revisiting the region that clearly captivates him. Another Fool In The Balkans is inspired by Rebecca West’s definitive book on what was once Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. White visits the same cities as the renowned reporter, spending time in Belgrade, Zagreb and Split, though he deviates slightly from her route, journeying to the Istrian peninsula which wasn’t part of Yugoslavia in the 1930s when West was there.
Though he doesn’t go in for the in-depth character portraits of Asne Sierstad’s study of Serbs and Serbia, With Their Backs To The World, he captures the country – the countries – at an interesting time, as normality gradually reinstates itself after so many years of warfare. But there’s a meandering quality to some of this chapters, which sees White blending analysis of the Serbo-centricity of West’s writing with anecdotes about his time spent with Radakovic and some of the others involved with the Croatian Nights project and FAK, the Croatian Festival of Alternative Literature. These sections have the potential to be interesting, but his fellow writers are very lightly sketched and never really lift off the page.
Other episodes are more compellingly written (though White’s prose is always fluid and punchy) – especially a meeting with boxing champion Mate Parlov. The bulk of the book concerns his time in Belgrade and these chapters are the strongest. White is there for the November 2003 elections and successfully captures the citizens’ complex and varied responses to the Miloševic trial (coverage of which was inescapable on Serbian television at the time). He clearly loves the city, and takes great pleasure in observing its gradual repair, its struggle to redefine itself, as the tourists slowly start returning and the world starts seeing it as more than just a war zone.
The Balkans have been much written about of late, and White has little that is revelatory to say about the area – a fact acknowledged in the book’s self-deprecating title. Though he knows the region well, he never attempts to speak for the people of the former Yugoslavia; he writes from a tourist’s perspective, discovering and learning as he goes. It’s an approach that works well in context – it’s genuinely refreshing to read a book where the conflicts of the past decades take a back seat to discussion of the country’s food and culture, its art and architecture – there’s a nice digression about the work of Ivan Meštrovic, whose sculpture, the Victor, is a Belgrade landmark. He’s adept at capturing that specific Balkan buzz, thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of strong coffee that can seem so alluring and romantic to outsiders. What comes through most strongly is his excitement about where the Balkans are going, what they’re capable of becoming - it's impossible not to share it.
For those looking for a primer to this fascinating part of the world, this book may prove confusing, but for those who share White’s passion and enthusiasm (and who are familiar with West’s work) it makes a very worthwhile read.