Sunday, July 19, 2015

Mediterranean Winter, Robert D, Kaplan

Mediterranean Winter by Robert D. Kaplan“Mediterranean Winter” is a wonderful read. A book that should be read on vacation, when you have more mental space to stop and think, and wonder. It is subtitled: “The pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Siciliy, Dalmatia and the Peloponnese”. It is in essence a travel book that Robert Kaplan wrote in 2004 about a trip he took back in the ‘70s. The focus of the book is actually on what it says: history and landscape, and how they influence each other.

I already knew Kaplan as I read “The Ends of the Earth”, another fascinating travel book that describes his journey from the poorest areas of West Africa (Laos, Togo, Benin) to Iran and Turkmenistan. Kaplan was a regular reporter when Bill Clinton was spotted with his book “Balkan Ghosts” tucked under his arm during his presidency. That propelled Kaplan’s popularity like a rocket, and he was suddenly advising the US government on various foreign policy matters.

I was familiar with his style, which I would define as that of an introverted left-brainer. Let me explain: the reality in which Kaplan seems to move in is a reality made of facts, objects, and geographic and historical data, rather than people. The real-life dialogue with local people is kept to a real minimum, while most of what he presents is filtered through his own eyes and through the (innumerable!!) books he has read and he keeps referencing. This is fantastic for a book lover, because you get to hear about many wonderful books that you didn’t know about, but, on the other hand, it shifts the writing towards the cold and dry side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In Tunisia, Kaplan becomes more aware of the Roman Empire and its vast influence on the North Africa regions. He also makes a compelling case for the history of Carthage being at the roots of Tunisia’s more modern and enlightened current politics, as opposed to other Muslim countries.

In Sicily, he becomes aware of ancient Greece, and the struggle between Athens and Syracuse. And in Greece, he reflects on Byzantium.

For every city or region he visits, he provides a summary of the main historical events that shaped that place and its people. Given the broad geographies described in the book, these summaries are necessarily sketched, but they often provide a good enough insight into the main events.

One of the things that I love the most about travel books is when the author gets his hands dirty and talks to the local people, gets their colors and perspectives about their city, country or history. Kaplan doesn’t do  much of this. He is more of an intellectual traveler, who often prefers the connection with long-dead people through books rather than the face-to-face talking and listening experience.

However, while “The Ends of the Earth” came across as too US-centric, from a cultural perspective, I preferred this book as it is free from any “I am a U.S. geo-strategy adviser” attitude.

Having said that, I read that Kaplan initially was a strong supporter of the Iraq war, but he now regrets that position completely, and he now thinks the war was a mistake. So what have all those thousands of books on history and strategy taught him?

That necessarily makes me wonder: is history able to teach us anything at all, really? Is “Historia magistra vitae”? Probably not. It might be in the future though, once Artificial Intelligence will start advising governments. Not as outlandish as you might think.

In essence, a great travel book for lovers of literature and history. Sometimes you get the impression that Kaplan travels to complete the literary experience he's had, when he read what Flaubert, Maupassant, Gibbon, and other great writers said about certain places and their own visits there. Almost as if those books were more real to him than the actual travel.

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