Courage and Desolation: "Where the West Ends" by Michael J. Totten

"Where the West Ends" is, at least superficially, a travelogue about the region straddling eastern Europe and western Asia, during the period from 2006 to 2012. The book is divided into four sections covering the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea. It's roughly the same region covered by Robert D. Kaplan about ten years earlier in Kaplan's book "Eastward to Tartary". But "Where the West Ends" is more personal, and it is astonishing. At times it surreally reminded me of China Mieville's novel "The City & the City".

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Probably most of us are guilty of throwing around terms like "the West" and "the Middle East" without really thinking too hard about what they mean, or where those places begin or end. If you want to understand what "the West" is, read this book to learn where it is, and where it is not.

There is a persistent feeling of loneliness in this book. It is the loneliness of communities cut off from one another and from themselves; but it's also the loneliness of certain individuals who refuse to be confined within the communal walls that are assigned to them.

There are harrowing stories of violence and cruelty, such as Berisha's tale of the expulsion of the Albanians from Prishtina and the ravaging of Krusha e Vogel. There is Ukraine's memory of the Stalinist "hunger plague" of 1932-1933. But there are also stories of courage and kindness, and of hope.

Three themes emerged for me as I read "Where the West Ends". There is the image of the lonely liberal, surrounded by a sea of increasingly hostile and violent factions. There is the conflict between old traditionalism and new fundamentalism. And there is the improbable eruption of pro-Americanism in the strangest places.

The Serbian film writer Filip David is one of those lonely liberals; so is the half-Serbian, half-Bosnian Predag Delibasic, who takes pride in having declared himself variously a Jew, a Muslim, and a Yugoslav - and claims that nonexistent nationality to this day. Perhaps the loneliest, though, is Shpetim Mahmudi, an Albanian Sufi mystic who must watch the gradual encroachment of foreign-backed Arab islamists on the grounds of his religious compound. His story is tragic.

It also points to something important about religious conflict in the Muslim world: that the conflict is often not - as Westerners sometimes imagine - a case of Western modernity threatening to extinguish Islamic tradition. Rather, it is instead a direct attack on centuries-old, evolving religious traditions by well-armed, well-financed followers of a comparatively recent fundamentalist sect. It is ancient moderation versus newfangled fanaticism.

It should not be news that there are places in the world where America is not well liked. Serbia is one of those places, as attested by the Belgrade taxi driver's curt greeting to Totten at the beginning of chapter 2. What's a better-kept secret, though, is that there are places that are enthusiastically pro-American. "Where the West Ends" visits some of those places: Iraqi Kurdistan, Albania, Georgia, Romania.

Taken as a whole, this book presents a spectrum of individual and communal relationships: nation-states new and old, enclaves and exclaves, secessionist and occupied zones, segregated and integrated communities, and individuals struggling - with varying degrees of success - to behave with dignity and decency amid environments calculated to breed brutality.

What we're left with is an admiration of the courage it takes to succeed. The Georgians in chapter 9 have watched Russian planes burn their forests and bomb their villages. They are angry with Russia, but they do not hate Russians. And Delibasic, at the end of chapter 2, says, "I don't hate anybody" - not even the general who commanded the prison camp where he was once confined.

Still, forgiveness is sometimes born of proximity. In the course of a conversation with a Romanian researcher about that country's Communist past, Totten is reminded of a militant in another place who said, "[They] don't live here … they live over there, so I don't have to forgive them!"

One final note: The values and traditions that we cherish in the West are by no means assured of continuance. "The West" is an abstraction that exists in space and also in time. If in the title you replace the word "where" with "when", the book is also a warning.

The book ends with an unforgettable scene of desolation. Read the book all the way to the end, to understand why the chilling final pages capture a part of Europe still haunted by many ghosts.

UPDATE: Thanks to Michael Totten for the link!