If you are not from Central or Eastern Europe do not try to pronounce the title and the name of the author it may cause permanent damage. The title of this book refers to a political concept known in English as Intermarium (the literal translation would be ‘Between-seas’) which proposed creating a federation of Central and Eastern European countries. This is not a historical book don’t worry, its subtitle ‘Travels through the real and imagined Central Europe’ clearly explains that.
The book is indeed a travel book: ‘a book about travels and impressions‘. Szczerek over the years visited most of the countries that were supposed to form Intermarium, but the travel in this book is also more metaphorical, he searches through his memories to find what, if anything, differs Western Europe from Central and Eastern Europe, where is the border between east and west. It is travel to the heart of Central and Eastern Europe, endeavoring to grasp and understand its soul. It all sounds very serious, but Szczerek’s writing style is very direct and often ironic, which makes for a good read. As he remembers his travels through each country he is trying to identify if they adopted more from the East or the West, he investigates local nationalisms. There is a very interesting map inside the cover showing current country borders and then overlaying on top of them the borders that each country thinks it should have, so we have here for example Great Bulgaria overlapping with Great Macedonia, Great Hungary overlapping with Great Romania etc. As Szczerek notes in his book the only country that actually got what it wanted is Ukraine, the borders of Great Ukraine are pretty much the same as reality, did it make for a happy nation is another story.
This is a very good read, even though it really gets depressing at times, being from the region myself, the aura of hopelessness that often pervades the book was easy for me to understand and sometimes succumb to. On the other hand he always manages to also find something absurd or funny, to balance the mood. This is a book about nationalism, borders, East and West, but also travels and most of all people and their ability to build walls and create conflicts where none are needed. It is not a cheerful read, but very interesting one, an unblinking look at the region with all its idiosyncrasies and every country dead set on proving they are more important than their neighbors. A region that tries to find its place between Russia and Germany, East and West and the hypothetical Center, a region that hypothetically could form a federation, but only hypothetically, there is too many forces pulling in too many different directions. What I also found interesting was that as familiar as a lot of the stories felt this book made me realize that I was only in four out of 18 countries. How little we usually know about our nearest neighbors! On the other hand it’s great that there’s so much to discover.
Unfortunately I’m not sure if it will ever be translated into English, the topic itself makes it regional. However if you would like to have a taster of Szczerek’s writing I found a chapter of his other book Mordor’s Coming to Eat Us: A Secret History of the Slavs translated on Asymptote.
Have you read any interesting books about Central and Eastern Europe?
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska @vkphotospace.com
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