A Return to the Balkans

By Simon Winchester

HarperCollins. 255 pp. $23

Reviewed by Peter Finn

When British journalist Simon Winchester reports that among the terrible things Serbs did during their ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo this spring were the "castrations with razors" and the "sawing off of heads" and then, a few sentences later, offers that "the Serbs here in Kosovo were getting back at the Albanians, as they saw it, for what the Turks had done to them," one is stopped short by the bloody historical determinism of it all.

Regardless of the truth of this or that barbarism -- although I'm still curious: How many heads were sawed off, and whose, and where? -- the essence of the Balkans is its permanent distemper, according to Winchester. They've been offing heads, so to speak, in the Balkans since at least the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 when the Ottoman Turks trounced the Serbs. So, according to Winchester, a Serb paramilitary in 1999, his pocket lined with stolen German marks, houses burning behind him, feels somewhere in his mercenary being that the Albanian he is about to kill, by whatever means, is a throwback to Turkish rule.

Yet there is something deeply unsatisfactory about this construction that permeates Winchester's sometimes engaging, sometimes unfocused travelogue through the Balkans in The Fracture Zone. Is there a political fault-line through the region that periodically shifts, resulting, ineluctably, in savage violence, or is each warring generation the specific author of its own disaster? Both ideas tangle here.

With the Kosovo conflict as backdrop, Winchester travels from Vienna to Istanbul, the twin poles of imperial voraciousness in the region, recreating a journey he had made 22 years earlier. He takes in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bulgaria as the war-planes of NATO's air campaign trail smoke in the skies overhead. And always he sees history looming like a bludgeon.

But too much emphasis on the Ottoman Topkapi palace as "the storm center, some might say, for all that has happened in the Balkans for the last five hundred years" reduces the terror campaign of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his regime to the role of cog in a larger, grinding machine, which will turn violently, sooner or later, with or without any individual actor.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia, which is probably not yet complete, began in Belgrade, and the awful violence of the breakup, at the very least, was not pre-determined by the frayed coattails of Ottoman rule. A modern, warped nationalism plunged the former Yugoslavia into four wars. And most recently, in Kosovo, the marauding Serbs hated Kosovar Albanians quite specifically -- without transmuting them into Turks.

One wonders, to use an analogy apt to the United Kingdom, Winchester's home country, if, when considering the murder of Protestants by the IRA, he would accept the suggestion that Irish Catholics were getting back at British Protestants for what Cromwell had done to them. Or would he say they are just a bunch of craven murderers, history be damned?

Winchester, nonetheless, is an amiable, languidly British guide to the one-time magnificence of the life and courts in old Vienna and Constantinople, and all the tortured humanity and geography that lie in between. And he rarely fails to evoke an arresting atmosphere, whether in the "Toytown" architecture of Cetinje, the ancient capital of Montenegro, or the "Wild West" chaos of Tirana, the Albanian capital, which he found "thronging, exuberant, a scene from a Fellini movie, from a summer night's dream, and if the players were ragged and poor, well, what of it."

Sometimes, however, he seems to meander needlessly, as when he attends a conference in Dubrovnik on unified field theory and "its connections, if properly harnessed, with the lessening of human chaos." And, beggaring belief at times, he can toss off apocryphal anecdotes about Albanian blood feuds or assertions about the incompetence of U.S. military pilots without even the faintest worry about supporting evidence.

Initially, Winchester writes that he wanted "to visit as much of the Balkans as it was possible to see, in the hope of completing a mosaic picture of the complexities of the place, one out of which might emerge something that, however blurred and fuzzy it might at first appear, did paint an approximate portrait that gave, at least to me, a context to what was happening in Kosovo." A modest goal, modestly met.

Peter Finn, who covered the conflict in Kosovo, is Central Europe correspondent for The Washington Post.