A long, sprawling combination of historical inquiry, autobiography, and travelogue that looks at the interplay of society and religion throughout history.
In his latest book, Kazan (The Day We Die, 2013, etc.) offers a sometimes-rambling but always engaging hybrid of historical discussion and personal revelation. He seeks to understand certain universal elements of human experience, and his essays range with ease from the intricacies of Central European history to the memes of hit movies. The author asserts that certain basic questions (“What is history?”; “Who are we?”) crop up repeatedly and that there are recurring obstacles to answering them—namely, “the duplicity and complicity of organized religion.” “Knowledge frees the individual,” he writes. “Oppositely, fear constrains.” Indeed, in the course of his complicated travels, he encounters a great deal of freedom and constraint. Whether he’s bicycling from Portugal to Turkey, seeking political asylum in Austria, graduating from the Romanian Air Force Academy, visiting the ancient Chinese city of Dali, or navigating the insane-seeming bureaucracy of his native Romania, Kazan exhibits a diarist’s ability to reconstruct believable conversations and a philosopher’s knack for getting underneath the surface of events. He characterizes this process as being innately human: “We cannot help but want to find common grounds with foreigners, to overcome human barriers, to manage cultural differences, and to conquer our fear of the unknown.” He intersperses his discussions of present-day realities in the places he visits with lively summaries of the locations’ histories, and the most effective sections deal with Romania. Although the book as a whole suffers from a lack of coherence, it counterbalances with dazzling scope and an infectious narrative zest. It bears out the truth of an ancient Greek writer, whom Kazan quotes: “Life is an enfoldment, and the further we travel the more truth we can comprehend.”
A lavish, often engaging personal account of the world, its peoples, and their local histories.