Reading continues to dominate our trip and during our time in the Balkans we managed to consume quite a variety of books, from Balkan histories and travelogues to various novels picked up at Belgrade’s English bookstores.
It started with Molly reading Anna Karenina – my favorite book. Much of our first month in Kotor was spent walking along the bay and arguing about whether Vronsky is likable or if Alex Alexandrovic deserves to be pitied (I think he’s a stooge, Molly feels sorry for him).
At the time, I was reading Mark Mazower’s The Balkans, possibly the smartest book I’ve ever read. I attempted to comprehend what I was reading by retelling the history to Molly: at one point we were walking down from Napoleon’s Fortress in Dubrovnik, overlooking the Adriatic, while I described 19th century nationalism to her and listed off the many crimes of the Great Powers.
I was also reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in fervor (thick enough to make Anna Karenina feel like a short story. This led Molly and I to cities like Sarajevo, Mostar and Dubrovnik where I would read aloud her sentiments on each place: Rebecca West finds Sarajevo as fascinating and lovely as we do but she absolutely hated Dubrovnik for being so touristy (if only she saw it now!). While staring at Dubrovnik’s old town from our gorgeous guest house, Molly re-read Brave New World and didn’t care for it (again).
Molly’s sister, Mariah, visited us in Kotor and she was reading River of Doubt about Teddy Roosevelt’s exploits in the Amazon. Over coffee in the morning she’d describe the sheer magnitude of the Amazon rainforest and all the horribly predatory reptiles and insects that killed off Teddy’s Roosevelt’s entourage.
I then jumped into Alan Furst’s fantastic thrillers about Europe during World War II. He fictionalizes the very important complexities of the smaller theaters of the war – the French resistance, Balkan politics, Polish expatriates and Americans smuggling guns through Spain. Molly tackled Murakami from our new balcony and when we drove up the Drina River she ranted and raved about the nonsensical Kafka on the Shore, wondering what the hell was going on the whole time, and yet she still loved it.
With so much free time I decided to splurge for a few books that everyone seems to always love: Zorba the Greek, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Wuthering Heights. Results were: couldn’t get through it, should have read it when I was 14 and .. . meh? Maybe there’s something wrong with me? This was all while Molly took on Mazower’s The Balkans and we shared notes over martinis on our balcony in Przno.
Then I went back to Rebecca West for our trip to Macedonia and Kosovo, blown away by her ability to seek out and commune with the peasantry of the 1930s, a group that has all but disappeared. Molly went dysutopian again and read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and I finally got around to Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, the definitive novel of Balkan History. The final scenes of Austrian troops massacring Serbs and Bosniaks in the summer of 1914 left me heartbroken.
Molly started Philip Roth’s Plot Against America during our melancholy ride to the airport, both of us sad to be leaving the Balkans after a fantastic 3 months. At the airport I ordered a beer, put my feet up in the lounge and finished A World Undone, an excellent book about World War I, that truly insane war which started one summer in the Balkans, lasted four years and killed 1.4 million Frenchman on a battlefield just outside of Paris, where we’d be arriving later that day and staying for the month of June.