On hinting at sadness, and being worldly and wounded

Christopher Solomon paid a visit to Sarajevo. He squinted in distant wonder at people's war stories. He remembered the names of some old ski champions. He chatted with some journalists. He did a little shopping and snacking. He went skiing. He found turbo-folk catchy. He wanted us to know that he can adjectify the name of Samuel Beckett. He wrote a feature for the New York Times about it.

All in a day's work.

Update: Mat wasn't impressed by the piece. But (I think) Quod was.


Yakima_Gulag said...

I am more likely to go with Quods view of it than Mat's she's from Sarajevo.

Mat Savelli said...

I should probably clarify something about my view. It's not that I don't think there aren't a few things worth addressing there, but the manner in which it's done is what's frustrating. There is almost nothing interesting about what the author has to say, it's just a rehash of dozens of other "Western person goes to Sarajevo" pieces. All that was missing was something about how the call of the muezzin touches the depths of each Sarajevan's soul (or something).

Don't get me wrong, I think the city IS beautiful (and after five visits, it's still one of my favourite places in the world), and I would fully admit feeling some of the same experiences on my first visit there. But much of the articles stinks of the stereotypes about Balkan life that frankly do more harm than good. I think I'm just getting more sensitive to the presentation of the Balkans as a whole (damn you "Balkan As Metaphor"). You get the sense that the writer went through a totally manufactured experience from arrival to departure, striving to put a little tick in the box beside everything he had already read in an article about Sarajevo somewhere else.

I just expect better from someone whose job is as a travel writer.

Eric Gordy said...

"Travel writing" is always a challenge, and this may be the reason I have never tried to do it. The writer wants to do the job of describing the place and experience, without having to pretend to be an insider. At the same time, there is the urge to try to produce insight, offering a "sense of the place" in a way that will be recognizable even to people who neither have nor want involvement with it. This is where the temptation to fall back on stereotypes comes in: the writer has to say something that people who are not familiar with the place will not know, and at the same time the writer does not have the reserve of knowledge to say something that the potential visitor would have to dedicate time and effort to get to know. So you get nonsense like "sabur," where remarks or jokes that people make along the way are transformed into oh-so-insightful global characterizations of things that the people who know the place "must not" know themselves. In the process, the superiority of the outside visitor is affirmed: I am a curious individual, come to watch you (all) marinate.

Mat Savelli said...

Umm...that's what I meant to say!

But in truth, I agree. Travel writing is extremely difficult. Travel writing on the Balkans is probably a bit more difficult than say, travel writing on Norway. Yet a tiny part of me still believes and hopes that it can be done well. I guess the reason I get more upset over bad travel writing than something like bad academic writing is that the style itself is quite seductive. Given the stylistic freedom that escapes most academics, it's much easier to pull a reader in. The danger is that, in the effort to seduce the reader, the writer may exaggerate certain things while neglecting others.

Thus you get cases like Robert Kaplan, where the writing itself is so good that it's relatively easy to overlook and forget about facts. For those of you who haven't heard this one, the rumour is that Clinton had a copy of his Balkan Ghosts on his nightstand during the early 90s, and that it informed much of his (in)decision(s) on how to react.

Then again, if this article is going to convince tourists to drop their dollars in Sarajevo in the hopes of seeing evil-combatting bank amulets, I guess I shouldn't complain.

As an aside, I think a (Canadian?) phd student just finished a dissertation on travel writing about the Balkans in the last few years, and perhaps there is something insightful there.

Eric Gordy said...

The U of Michigan has a travel writing archive for SE Europe:


118 texts, mostly late 19th and early 20th century. Mind, I'd still maintain that the best Balkan travel writing from the US is by Louis Adamic.