A departure for a geopolitical gloom-and-doom Atlantic Monthly reporter: a book of travels to places where he’s not being shot at and whose inhabitants are not busily butchering one another.
This work is a curiosity in several respects. First, Kaplan (The Coming Anarchy, 2000, etc.) has dusted off journals from trips made as far back as the 1970s, when, fresh out of school and eager to live the Hemingway life, he headed for Europe to sharpen his aperçus. And so he did: “Marseilles taught me,” he writes in a nicely epigrammatic if self-evident turn, “that Mediterranean history was about power first, beauty second.” Second, he allows himself evident pleasure in seeing austere and difficult landscapes—an absence of gunfire, one supposes, will do that for a person—serving up crystalline sentences about “the sculpted, liver-hued steppe of northern Tunisia and the pinks of the southern deserts, with their vast blotches of salt” and oceangoing vessels that “slapped easily over the water, abounding with fish and sponges.” Elsewhere he ponders the deep history of Mediterranean lands, even engaging in brief flights of fancy, as when he imagines a moment with the well-traveled and learned Roman emperor Hadrian, who “would pause, perhaps, before a sculpture of Praxiteles, while remembering his dead lover Antinous.” Kaplan’s occasional Durrellesque, and presumably recent, grumblings about how places like the suburbs of Athens have been ruined by modernity (“sex shops and auto parts stores lined what in ancient times was the Sacred Way”) aside, this is at heart a young man’s story, sometimes self-conscious, sometimes a little too proud, one that takes pains to affirm that, as an adage has it, you can only know a foreign place after spending a winter there—as Kaplan has so often done, and in so many distant venues.
Interestingly written throughout and brought into the present with a memorable visit to the arch-traveler Patrick Leigh Fermor: a standout travel book, and a literate companion to places less remote than Kaplan now haunts.