Perhaps because of his publishing deadline, Kaplan gives little space to exploring the significance of Romania’s surprising 2014 election ... but omissions and unevenness come with the territory, as it were, and are compensated for by the rich characters who wander through these pages, particularly the nonagenarian historians and other intellectuals, officials and churchmen who dispense wisdom from book-lined homes, cafes, or chapels old and new.
When Kaplan lets his emotions speak, his cup overfloweth. 'The ultimate purpose of existence is to sanctify beauty,' say, or 'Travel is about movement through stages of landscape, mirroring one’s journey through life.' These pronouncements are disarmingly passionate. No one would accuse Kaplan of being a softnose, but that kind of talk, that’s called vulnerability.
In the end, this is not the stereotypical Romania of Dracula, of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, or of perfect gymnasts — this is the story of a young and confused country, forever on the borderland of Europe, constantly forced to side with the strongest schoolyard bully, while doing its best to retain a soul it still can’t quite pin down.
Kaplan’s writing is like the places he visits. It’s a terrain, a concentrated expression of a particular part of the world as he sees it, a very personal account though steeped in broad historical knowledge and familiarity with a wide range of sources ... a demanding book for the lay reader but it shows how, at one and the same time, Romania is distinctive and a key to a broader and deeper understanding of contemporary Europe.