An acclaimed British travel writer takes the same journey across Europe he did in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. This time around, MacLean finds nascent democracy replaced by xenophobia, nationalism, and the advance of illiberalism.
Rory MacLean’s Pravda Ha Ha is...a triumph, made all the more commendable by its inherent challenges ... MacLean chronicles the surreal while surveying the brutally real ... His writing style, too, remains pure in its colour and profound in its conclusions. However, Pravda Ha Ha is deeply disturbing book ... MacLean paints a convincing portrait of a Europe in turmoil ... MacLean is brilliant at creating scenes. He can revisit the past, mixing warm nostalgia with cold distaste. He is, though, at his best when he states his personal truth that has been honed from surveying the landscape, talking to the victims and perpetrators and gauging what was once the reality of 30 years ago and what presents itself now.
... gripping ... MacLean is an accomplished writer; his immersive prose crackles with wit and wry humour, and captures scenes and personalities with aplomb. As a narrator, he is frank about his own liberal beliefs and unabashedly partisan in his thumping of reactionaries, ethno-nationalists and xenophobes. But if his colourful encounters with Europeans from alt-right Polish executives to German neo-fascists offer a fascinating and grim portrait of our current predicament, how compelling is MacLean’s explanation of how we got here? ... There is a great deal of truth to his account. But illiberalism, ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism are deeply embedded in European culture—they are not confections of recent politics.
Readable and often grimly entertaining, Pravda Ha Ha demonstrates that Mr. MacLean has not lost his eye for absurdity...or a revealing detail. Yet Pravda Ha Ha has less of the subtlety that marked Mr. MacLean’s long-ago debut, a shortfall that extends into occasionally clumsy prose ... he hears 'the echo of marching boots'—a symptom, mainly, of his bleak mood ... Disillusion is generally a better guide than hope, but when disillusion is, if only partly, the product of a continuing illusion—in this case, a vision of 'Europe' to which Mr. MacLean is still in thrall—that is not necessarily so ... Failing to acknowledge how the EU has been its own worst enemy leads Mr. MacLean astray as he searches for enemies elsewhere. He exaggerates the effect of Russian efforts to 'undermine European unity' (though these are real enough). At the same time, the author downplays the extent to which the EU’s insistence on 'unity'...has become a force for destabilization ... Despite such sins of omission, Mr. MacLean has an acute grasp how a people’s history can be rewritten to reshape its future—even if, interestingly, he has nothing to say about the ways in which EU’s cheerleaders distort Europe’s past.