Winchester revisits the Balkans -- very swiftly

October 17, 1999|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff

"The Fracture Zone," by Simon Winchester. HarperCollins. 257 pages. $23.

There is precious little to like in this book, and that's a shame. Author Simon Winchester certainly is capable of better work, based on his fine previous effort, "The Professor and the Madman." But "The Fracture Zone: A Return to the Balkans" exhibits all the symptoms of a hasty idea hustled into print by a publisher determined to make a quick buck from a hot property.

Shallow, incomplete and annoyingly melodramatic, Winchester purports to explain the centuries-old forces and tensions that led to this year's war in Kosovo from insights he gained during two trips to the region, one during the war and one in 1977.

Yet, as the reader soon learns, his earlier journey was little more than a quick drive-through, part of a circuitous move by his family from London to points east. He recalls little from the experience except the profane anti-Albanian shouts of a Serbian gas station attendant and a single picnic stop in an idyllic meadow.

His more recent Balkan journey is only marginally more illuminating. He ventured into Kosovo for only a few days after the end of the war.

Winchester's conceit is that one can better understand Kosovo by traveling in a curving path from Vienna to Istanbul, the former capitals of the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires.

To get to the heart of the matter in Vienna he engages in a little cafe chitchat and spends a few days convincing museum officials to let him view the skull of the Ottoman grand vizier who once besieged the city. In Istanbul he speaks with the head of the Austrian cultural center, an expatriated Serbian Muslim and an Orthdox patriarch.

It is thin stuff, and it gets thinner: In Albania we hear from nary an Albanian. Macedonia's complex and volatile ethnic mix is summed up in a statistical footnote.

Cobbled to this scant material are descriptions of past wars and a lengthy discussion of the region's geology, which gets more importance than it deserves, perhaps because the author holds a degree in the subject.

The most worthy chapter is a look at postwar Sarajevo, where he slows down long enough to let the dispirited locals explain their growing resentment of the "internationals" from aid agencies, administrators and businesses who now dominate the city.

A tendency toward melodrama is irritating throughout. Any road with a curve is invariably "dangerous." Any man with a gun is depicted as an imminent threat to the author's life.

Little wonder, then, that when Winchester reaches journey's end he airily states the most superficial of conclusions. Perhaps the Turks are to blame for the persistency of Balkan woes, he says, or perhaps the Serbs. Or perhaps religion. Or geology. Or meddlesome empires. "Or perhaps do we blame no one," he asks in closing, "and just shrug our shoulders and relegate the region to the backwaters as somewhere incomprehensible, intractable, and, one is tempted to splutter with exasperation, impossible?"

Such is the cynical haste at the heart of this book.

Dan Fesperman covered the war in Bosnia for The Sun from 1993 to 1996 while posted to the Berlin bureau. His first book, "Lie in the Dark," set in Sarajevo, was released by Soho Press.

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