Monday, February 18, 2019

13. Dragoman by Eric Williams

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books in Berkeley, based purely on the cover and trade dress alone.  I read a snippet of the blurb and saw it took place in Communist Eastern Europe and thought it might be promising.  What's neat is that there is a stamp on the inside (see the photo below) for the Hotel Perge, which is in Atalya, Turkey, not too far from where all the action in this book takes place.
It's an interesting book.  Based on the short preface paragraph, the author and his wife seemed to have been one of the few western people allowed to drive freely around Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary at the height of Soviet oppression in the mid-50s.  That's basically the set up here, with Roger and Kate Starte driving in their Land-Rover at first in Romania (Rumania as it is spelled in the book) and then into Bulgaria.  It took me a while to figure out what was going on here, because I was assuming they were spies, but nothing kept developing.  They just acted like plucky and semi-clueless British tourists the world around.  It turns out, that's what they are!  The excitement comes when they run into a pro-Communist British archaeologist who was invited to Rumania to work on a book proving that Romanians were of Slavic descent.  When he got there, he saw the concentration camps and the brutality of the existence of men building a canal and realized that he had been wrong.  Now he was being held prisoner.  They decide to help smuggle him out.
It's all very competently written, though for some reason a bit light.  The consequences are very real, but they don't feel heavy.  It's hard to say if it is the failure of the author to deliver the real fear or if is a success and he is portraying the ignorance of the privileged westerners.  It feels like an escape story tacked on to a well done travelogue.  Oh yes, and with some simplistic individual vs. collective freedom philosophizing.
It is interesting to read about the region during that period.  It sounds geographically quite beautiful (and makes sense that it is becoming a tourist destination these days).  It is also a reminder of living in a truly oppressive system.  While the Communist bogeyman of the cold war was in many ways overblown, there is no doubt that the Soviet Union was a near-totalitarian state.  Furthermore, that was not that far in the past.  Today, we have a common perspective on Russia that seems to have forgotten a lot of that, but you see how their understanding of propaganda and coercion has given Putin's Russia a strategic advantage that outweighs their actual military and economic power.  This book was a good reminder of the history behind that advantage.  Fucking scary stuff having military outposts on every road; police, secret service and informers in every neighbourhood constantly watching and reporting on each other and any newcomers.
Eric Williams was an RAF pilot and a POW in WWII and wrote another book about his actual escape attempts called The Wooden Horse.  I shall add that to the list.

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