FROM Robert Kaplan's "Reader's Guide to the Balkans," in a...

Salmagundi

April 26, 1993

FROM Robert Kaplan's "Reader's Guide to the Balkans," in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review:

"History, like hate, is the product of memory, and memory is composed of unforgettable detail -- sights, smells, sounds, exalted emotions, grim statistics and cruel ironies. A memory is not subject to condensation. Made to fit inside the narrow strictures of a television sound bite or a newspaper column, it loses all meaning. It becomes just another lifeless fact that can never convey how people have come to think and behave as they do.

"The Balkans are a region of pure memory: a Bosch-like tapestry of interlocking ethnic rivalries where medieval and modern history thread into each other. More complicated and less visually exotic than the Middle East, the Balkans are unsuited to the reductions of the television camera. (A recent ABC News special, 'Land of the Demons,' showed footage from Bosnia, but even with rock music playing in the background the effect was flat.) Whereas the Middle East is a game of checkers -- Arabs versus Israelis, with a modern history that began only in 1918 -- the Balkans are three-dimensional chess.

"So in a sense the ascendancy of the Balkans as a news story in the 1990s means a victory for print over television. Yet it is not only the television correspondents who can't do much with the Balkans. Neither can the newspaper pundits, since the region is not an extension of America's own ethnic and racial obsessions, the way the Middle East and South Africa are. The Balkans are truly foreign. They require pure intellectual curiosity, nuance, not op-ed polemics. There is no getting around it. To understand the Balkans, you have to read books."

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