I picked up Balkan Ghosts because I was interested in the subject matter, and I hadn’t read anything by Robert D. Kaplan before this. It’s interesting that this book was published in the “Vintage Departures” series because it might not have occurred to me that this book is a travelogue, even though Kaplan does spend much of the book on rickety trains and in decrepit hotels throughout the Balkans. So unmethodical are his travels that “travelogue” seems a misnomer. Nonetheless, Kaplan’s descriptions of the Balkans just months after the fall of Communism are illuminating. At every turn, he is digging up hidden details unseen by Western eyes during the decades of communism. Through the shattered republics of Yugoslavia he travels, then on to Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. Kaplan imbues the book with an impressive amount of historical context, going to great lengths to avoid the generalizations that are more typically employed to explain the seemingly perpetual strife of the Balkans. The book was published in 1995, the mid-point of a bloody decade in the Balkans, and it contains a good deal of forewarning of what was to come to pass in the region in the coming years. In this sense the book is impressive in a third way. Beyond a travelogue, beyond a regional history, Balkan Ghosts is the rare “current events” book that will not soon become obsolete.
I have touched upon Stephen King‘s much maligned reputation from time to time on this blog, and so it was a real pleasure to read a book that reinforced all of the things that I like about his writing. King’s aim is, first and foremost, to entertain his reader, to engage him, to reach out from the page and take hold of him. This seems like something that every writer would want to do, but how true is that really? It seems like most writers want to create something that is either “good” or “successful,” those being code words for “literary” and “bestseller,” respectively. Which writers, however, tell you again and again that they wish most of all to entertain? Few, if any, besides Stephen King have this aim. Read the introduction to Everything’s Eventual or any of On Writing or the various non-fiction pieces he has written over the years and you will see that this is true. King entertains by pulling his reader in, by talking to him from the page. If King is really rolling, as you are reading you will feel as though you are being addressed by him. The short story, with its tight structure and limited length, proves to be especially potent when combined with King’s desire to take you in. He leads you one way, then another. He steps over the line and gives you gore, but only because it is absolutely necessary, and when you finish a story you feel like you’ve been for a ride; it’s a giddy feeling. And in this book you get it 14 times. I’ve also always enjoyed King’s rapport with his readers. He is not aloof about his writing, and telling his readers about his writing seems as enjoyable to him as writing the books themselves. In Everything’s Eventual each story is either preceded or followed by a page explaining how the story came to be. There is no coyness about such things; just as there is no coyness in King’s fiction. These stories speak for themselves, they are about what they are about, so what’s wrong with a little background info? In fact, I think King recognizes that it is normal for readers to be curious about such things, and, not caring what a critic might think of such a move, he chooses, as he usually does, to indulge his readers. Why, does he bother doing this… any of this? I think it is because he is a born writer who happens to derive joy from a pastime that most people, including many of the most praised writers who ever walked the earth, find lonely and torturous. I love reading Stephen King because, in his typically insidious way, when I read his books it makes me wish that all of my reading were that fun.Shirley Hazzard‘s The Great Fire is jumping to the front of the “Reading Queue” because I have to read it for the book club I run. Also, you may have noticed that the comment function has disappeared. Blogspeak, my comment host, was run out of business by its hosting company and now all of their accounts are in the process of being transferred over to Halo Scan. I hope this happens soon because I miss all of your little voices.
Zach Brennan is staff writer for two health publications in Washington, D.C.The storyline is simple: a Portuguese physician and occasional poet, Ricardo Reis, returns to Portugal after sixteen years in Brazil. First he lives in a hotel and then he moves to an apartment. He loves two women, one is a chambermaid and the other is a virgin with a limp arm. The beginning of the Spanish revolution, and rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar are set in the background. That’s about it for plot.Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, instead, centers The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis on the memories and tangents of the wandering, flawed, bored Reis and his meditations on art, sexual fantasies, and conversations with the ghost of his dead friend and fellow poet, Fernando Pessoa. The tension between storyline and uninhibited details and thought processes of Reis create questions that will not be answered directly by him or the narrative.The book begins with a quote from the title character:”Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world.” -Ricardo ReisI thought it was unorthodox to begin a novel with a quote from the title character, so I looked up Reis and found that he was actually a heteronym (a poet develops an imaginary character and personality in order to write in a different style) for the real Fernando Pessoa, an early 20th-century Portuguese poet.So it’s not surprising that the poetic conversations between Reis and Pessoa, now a ghost in Saramago’s novel, concentrate on the metaphysical relationships between the living and dead, the artist and his art, and also parallel what could be Saramago’s own apprehensions about his creative progeny.Pessoa says to Reis, his creation, “We mourn the man whom death takes from us, and the loss of his miraculous talent and the grace of his human presence, but only the man do we mourn, for destiny endowed his spirit and creative powers with a mysterious beauty that cannot perish.”The conversations mix seamlessly with Saramago’s aphorisms, without paragraph breaks or chapters or standard quotation marks or even line breaks for speaker transitions. The sentence structure is similar to the Chilean author Roberto Bolano’s and is easy to wander in and out of like a dream.Reis, like Bolano, is a wanderer who doesn’t seem content trying to describe his reasons for returning to Portugal, nor his relationships with two women, nearly his only contact with the outside world beyond his discussions with Pessoa. This failure of explanation also seems reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose characters don’t quite understand or question why they’ve initially interacted and then fallen in love.The novel takes patience but rewards careful reading, and can be supplemented with a reading of Pessoa’s poems, written as Ricardo Reis, as well as an understanding of Reis’ motto:See life from a distance.Never question it.There’s nothing it canTell you. The answerLies beyond the Gods.