REVIEW by Jemma L King

NWR Issue r36

Pravda Ha Ha

by Rory MacLean

I love travel books. I especially love them if the writer has despatched themselves to locations slicked in filthy glamour, or places as inhospitable as Mars (my favourite is Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, about the Scott expedition to Antarctica). Frankly, if no right-minded person would want to go there, if it nearly kills you to be there, that’s the travel book that I want to read.

Pravda Ha Ha is therefore, right up my alley. Acclaimed travel writer, Rory MacLean, sets out to traverse what can be best summarised as ‘the bad bits’ of Russia and surrounding territories, taking in the ‘world’s ugliest city’ (Kaliningrad), a city where extracurricular activities are discouraged because one in three prostitutes have serious venereal diseases (also Kaliningrad) and places where his shady hosts make him fear for his own mortality (pretty much everywhere).

It’s a riot, I love it.

But, there is also a very serious side to MacLean’s expedition. It has been thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the author takes that charged anniversary as his narratorial departure point. At that time, Europe grasped at a new beginning and as the dominoes fell, resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Empire, it looked as though things were heading in the right direction. MacLean’s return to Russia (and Poland, Hungary, Germany and a few other surrounding countries) however, illustrates that the Far Right is once again on the march from the Baltic to the Black.

MacLean is an informative writer and assumes the reader knows not-a-lot about Russian history, which is handy given how intentionally muddy and self-complicating Russian history actually is. His expositions usefully explain the double bluffs and triple bluffs that have played out to get us from point A to point B, how the little guy was shafted in the process, and the stupid became unjustifiably wealthy. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could quickly become tedious, but overwhelmingly, the book resists ideologically possessed tropes.

And his depictions, however throwaway, are sensitively wrought. One insignificant but memorable passage saw a woman transformed under the shifting light in the inside of an aeroplane cabin, from a perfected ‘Rostov icon’ to the haggard and desperate wage-slave that she actually was. Russia, MacLean tells us, is one big optical illusion. Behind the cries of ‘Glory to the victorious people’, there are wizards behind those iron curtains, pulling the strings and calling the shots.

To get a better understanding of how this is all playing out on the ground, MacLean visits places that nobody is really hankering for knowledge about. Transnistria for example. This territory is a strange archipelago that considers itself its own country and a dominion of Russia (as well as being a buttress of anachronistic Soviet rule). But, unfortunately for the inhabitants, it’s also just a chunk of very-much-existing Moldova, so that’s how the rest of the world perceives it. This unrecognised ‘Russian territory’ within Europe gives rise to some odd internal mechanics, enabling inhabitants to be become off-the-books and off-the-charts wealthy from chicken leg trafficking to international arms trade deals.

Transnistria (and indeed, Russia proper) is an impossible nut for MacLean to crack in terms of gleaning any fiscal honesty, but he delights in the subterfuges and ridiculous paranoias of all he meets on his travels. He reserves his pithiest portrayals for his oligarchs, so bound in their own mythologies that their egos have inflated to planetary proportions:

’Sorry for my English bleeding your ears but you are a writer.’ He picked a hair off his baby-blue Jaegar cashmere jumper. He could have done without the camouflage khaki cravat. ‘I tell you my story and you write it. Understand?’

Later, MacLean wakes up in the middle of the night to see this same self-appointed emperor, sprawled across the sofa ‘like some Gogol caricature’, deep in ‘that marvellous slumber which is known only to those fortunate beings who are bothered neither by haemorrhoids, nor fleas, nor overdeveloped mental faculties.’

Yes, he wrote about you, Dmitri, oh did he write about you.

MacLean’s Russia is both a beast of burden and a place where dreams, for the few, bleed into reality. It’s a place where women swoon mistily before the sight of live artillery being fired at a war-themed Disneyland. It’s a place where people Russianly mutter things like ‘free cheese is only found in mousetraps’, or ‘some people got bagel, others got bagel hole’, and a place where even the flora and fauna subscribe to national stereotypes. Indeed, the million-dollar ‘Putin’s Pecker’ mushroom (sampled the author) brings on delusions of invincibility and full-blooded nationalism. What a vignette.

There’s so much I want to tell you about this book, about Sami’s struggle to get into the Schengen Zone, about the troll factories (!), about guns and bin bags in a forest but alas, I am out of words.

So I’ll leave it here by saying that it’s a compelling and bitterly entertaining read and will be beloved by MacLean’s army of fans; that’s a given. And, in its first-hand diarising of the rise of the Right in Europe, it might also prove to be as historically significant as Antal Szerb’s Journeys in Italy. Let’s hope not, but time will tell.

Jemma L King won the Terry Hetherington Young Welsh Writer of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Wales Book of the Year Roland Mathias Prize for her debut poetry collection, The Shape of a Forest (Parthian). She lives in Wales and is currently working on a new poetry collection and novel.


previous review: The House Without Windows
next review: Where The Wild Ladies Are


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