The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage is a work of fresh travel writing, a sort of intellectual pilgrimage. In the book, Robert Isenberg—a teacher and playwright in Pittsburgh—journeys to meet up with his high school friend Amila in Sarajevo. Rather than flying directly to the Bosnian capital, he begins his trip in Athens in order to criss-cross the Balkan states, educating himself and his readers on the people, places, and history of the region.
A crisp and unusual memoir, The Archipelago is so engaging because it chronicles the (mis)adventures of an amateur: Isenberg knows no Balkan languages, no residents except Amila, and has no idea how he'll cover the hundreds of miles to Sarajevo. The inevitable snags lend a touch of tension to the book (at times, his arrival seems very precarious), but the true focuses are the Balkan people, scenery, and culture. On these subjects as well, the author's naiveté is an ironic strength. The prologue describes an adolescent Isenberg's relation to the Balkans, the horrific blips on CNN and MSNBC we can all relate to, followed by silence as the wars and the 90s subside. As he matures, Isenberg ponders what became of the region, and the concept of the trip begins to form:
Still, the question lingered: What happened to Yugoslavia? Were the wars truly over, or did we just not care? …Ads for Macedonia popped up on the Travel Channel. I met a guy from Bosnia on the boardwalk, a woman from Kosovo at school. But mostly there was nothing.
Through Isenberg's innocent perspective, the Balkans emerge and define themselves as any region should: deeply rooted in the past, forgiving but not forgetting, slowly progressing to an uncertain but hopeful future. Despite the tragic history of the last twenty years, the area remains resilient. And beautiful. Here's a passage from his description of Dubrovnik, a Croatian city on the Adriatic Sea:
It's unreal—the whitewashed walls and orange terra cotta roofs, each planted in just the right places, the grass-and-rock hills dabbed with primal brush and trees, the pure water broken by just the right pattern of powerboats, the cloudless sky streaked by a single jet stream, the tiny cars motoring past us with Mediterranean ease, the old men roaming sidewalks with fishing poles slung over shoulders, the young men zooming along on mopeds, their shirts flapping in the salty breeze.
The writing has a rolling quality—Isenberg can barely contain his enthusiasm—that makes for an engrossing read. He is, after all, a playwright. The descriptions of the various cities and countries are painted with slow strokes, building a complete and individual image that the reader can easily understand. Isenberg explains his comical moments of being lost in place or language with a touch of grace. His landscapes dream of a proud, beautiful society only just recovering from its traumas.
The ending chapters—in which he reaches Amila and Sarajevo—darken the work, describing local war stories of survivals and atrocities. But again, Isenberg takes his cues from the people, passing along a palpable optimism that kept me reading to the last inspiring note:
Peace will rent you a bicycle. Peace will take you to dinner, because you are a guest. Peace is a safe trail through a minefield in the hills…Peace is lingering barbed wire fence. Peace speaks many languages.