Recycling fashionable prejudices
by Noel Malcolm
Dervla Murphy, Through the Embers of Chaos: Balkan Journeys, John Murray, London 2002, £20, 388 pp
It is almost 40 years since Dervla Murphy burst on to the scene, with what rapidly became one of the best-selling of all modern travel books - an account of her bicycle ride to India, aptly entitled Full Tilt. It was short, vivid and immediate, and the writing conveyed the most appealing combination of can-do breeziness and sympathetic attention to people and places.
A succession of other works followed, describing long journeys - many by bicycle - in Asia, Africa and South America. Some things have changed over the years. The books have got longer, and Ms Murphy has become more opinionated, more politically engagée. But the basic recipe - and the sheer energy required to bring it off - has remained the same.
Amazingly, this indestructible grandmother, now in her 71st year, is still on her bike. Her new book consists mainly of an account of a three-month-long bicycle ride through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and Kosovo (then back to Croatia) - a route that just happens to contain some of the worst mountain roads in Europe.
Nothing can stop Dervla Murphy; her tilt is fuller than ever. As she descended a long, steep hill in northern Bosnia, a Swedish army vehicle kept pace just behind her. ‘It stopped as I dismounted to walk up the opposite hill and a worried-looking young soldier emerged. In perfect English he informed me that I had been travelling at 65 kph and he thought on such descents I should use my brakes!'
Many of the old virtues of her writing are still in evidence here: the sharply drawn vignettes, the attention to landscape and way of life. Anyone familiar with the former Yugoslavia will relish her vivid descriptions - including those of the charmless Yugo-chic of the provincial hotels (‘bile-coloured circular floor rugs, fat orange leatherette chairs on thin metal pedestals, twee little tiger-striped stools, hideously "innovative" pseudo-chandeliers and lurid murals!’).
But Dervla Murphy did not visit the Balkans to inspect the chandeliers. She went there with a mission: to observe the aftermath of war, and speak to the victims. I almost wrote: ‘listen to the
victims’; but the impression given by such a phrase would be incomplete. From almost the first moment, Ms Murphy is telling these people what to think.
‘Now we're facing a triple threat,’ she tells a couple of Serbian teenagers. ‘Rampant militarism, globalisation and environmental-ecological disaster.’ It quickly becomes clear that ‘militarism’ is her main enemy. To some other Serbs, who are unlikely to disagree with her, she explains that the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 did nothing to help the Albanians in Kosovo, adding: ‘This is what happens when militarists try to solve political problems.’
Militarism is of course linked to capitalism; ‘uncontrolled capitalism and consumerism’ are linked to crime; Nato is a fount of evil, and the fount of Nato, the United States, is a rogue state; the Great Powers caused the recent wars in the Balkans through their pursuit of ‘spheres of influence’ there; those Powers themselves have no coherent strategy, but the sinister multinational corporations lurking in the background have a monolithic single interest, and so on, and so on.
True, she does a lot of listening too; but her own opinions are constantly in the foreground. She wanted to write something that would be more than just a travel book; and, indeed, this one becomes as much a political book as an account of a cycling tour. But the effects are problematic.
As a travel book it begins to lose the essential virtue of receptivity and openness to experience: here is a traveller whose conclusions were packed with the rest of her luggage at the outset. And although the many victims' stories she records provide some fascinating material for political analysis, that is not, in the end, an adequate way to find out what really happened and why - not least because the overall picture that emerges will always depend on the selection of victims.
Ms Murphy's selection begins in Belgrade, with the victims of Nato's bombing. Almost all the Serbs she met described themselves as victims of Milosevic too. When Serb forces were killing people in Kosovo, one told her, ‘the Albanians and ourselves were united in a new way - all victims of Milosevic. Now we're divided again, the Albanians gone over to Nato!’ He did not explain just how the Serbian people, so united in their victimhood with the Kosovars, would otherwise have acted to help them, having generally welcomed all the oppressive measures taken against them in the previous 10 years. Nor did Ms Murphy stop to ask him, being too pleased to be told what she wanted to hear.
And so it goes on. In Kosovo she cycles quickly past Drenica, the central area in which village after village was bombarded, looted and torched by Serb forces, seeking out instead victims of Albanian oppression in the remaining Serb enclaves. She rages against the Western forces for failing to protect these people properly; unfortunately she is not able to visit the few Albanians still living in Serb-controlled northern Mitrovica, where the level of international protection is far lower.
Despite these obvious features of the book, it would be wrong to suggest that Ms Murphy has taken sides between the local combatants in these wars. She is quick to condemn what was done by Serb forces in Bosnia, and is genuinely repelled by the extremism of the self-styled ‘Chetniks’ (nationalist Serbs) she meets. No, the side she has taken has a non-Balkan enemy in its sights: she is simply against Nato and the ‘international community’.
This means that in Kosovo she is most concerned with the Serbs who have suffered after Nato's intervention; in Croatia she is most concerned with the Serbs of the ‘Krajina’ (because the Croatian campaign to retake that area had US military advisers); and in Bosnia she is most concerned with the Muslims, because they were the main victims of Nato's three-year-long failure to intervene properly.
If that last point raises a puzzling question about ‘militarism’ and whether, or why, it is sometimes legitimate to use force, do not expect it to be answered in this book. Do not expect reliable information about the origins of the conflict either: the opening section, entitled ‘Background Information’, contains a farrago of false and misleading claims that could have come straight from the Belgrade Ministry of Information, circa 1994. (This is so out of keeping with some of the other information given in the book that it is hard to believe that Ms Murphy wrote this material herself.)
Partly a travel book and partly a political tract, this book is, in the end, satisfactory as neither. Unstoppable though she may be as a cyclist, Dervla Murphy has nevertheless fallen between two saddles.
This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, 25 August 2002