BOOK REVIEW / Tearing up the historical map of the Balkans: 'Historical Atlas of East Central Europe' - Paul Robert Magocsi: University of Washington, 49.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WARS, border changes and forced population movements run through the history of Eastern Europe like malignant threads. Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union recently disappeared from the map, yet these states did not even exist until after the First World War.

There are people still alive who have childhood memories of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro- Hungarian empires. If you spend time in Germany, sooner or later you will run into people from regions that now lie in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the Serbian province of Vojvodina, Romania, Russia and Kazakhstan. For all except the most assiduous scholars, it is hard to remember precisely when each change occurred and why.

Paul Robert Magocsi's atlas appears at a time when violence, political strains and economic pressures are once more altering the face of Central and Eastern Europe. It is a magisterial work, containing 89 superbly drawn maps and 28 tables covering everything from the missions of Cyril and Methodius, who converted the Slavs to Christianity in the ninth century, to the enormous population transfers of 1944-48. As a bonus, there is a lucid and impartial text that sets every important development in perspective.

However beautifully the atlas exposes the historical fractures in Central Europe, it can hardly trace those fractures in detail. Robert D Kaplan's much-praised Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (Macmillan, pounds 14.99) is a description of the author's travels through the Balkans in the 1980s and early 1990s. But it also aims to illustrate the complexities of Balkan politics by combining short sketches of the region's history with an account of Kaplan's experiences as he winds his way south from Croatia to Greece. At times the text jerks uncomfortably between the two styles. But Kaplan offers illuminating insights into the way that history holds in its baleful grip the mentalities of the Balkan peoples.

The most successful chapters, entertainingly written and often highly perceptive, are the seven that cover Romania. One passage describes how a dark-haired woman in mini-skirt and mascara, implausibly identifying herself as Claudia Cardinale, solicits the author in the gloomy grandeur of the Athenee Palace hotel in Bucharest. The twist comes when Kaplan recalls that John Reed, the American writer and Communist, underwent exactly the same experience at the same hotel in 1915. 'Beneath the ice mask of Communism and violent revolution,' writes Kaplan, 'Romania lived on, indestructible, unchanged.'

Kaplan sails to a remote Danube delta village on a stinking boat packed with drunks, and is rescued by an English-speaking doctor who serves him smoked baby shark and fish roe salad washed down with homemade brandy. In Sibiu, a Transylvanian town still pervaded by Germanic influences, he is happy to find that the hotel soap comes in a new wrapper and the soup is greaseless.

Of the 10 other chapters, three each cover Bulgaria and Greece and four treat former Yugoslavia. The Bulgarian chapters are the best of these, relating the development of Kaplan's friendship with a journalist who, at the start of the 1980s, insists that he is 'a Communist and an internationalist', but who, by 1990, is working as a stringer for an American news agency.

Kaplan captures the rich and haunting flavour of the Balkans and brings to life the characters living there. A pity, then, that the book gives repeated incorrect spellings for a number of words, including the Second World War Croatian extermination site of Jasenovac, pivo (the Slavic word for beer), and the Securitate, Ceausescu's security police.