For more than three decades, Robert Kaplan has been challenging readers with his distinctive blend of travel writing, journalism, and analysis of foreign affairs. His most recent book, Adriatic, returns to southeastern Europe, a corner of the world that has informed his thought since the beginning of his career. Kaplan revels in the historic and cultural messiness of this regional palimpsest, with its layers of Greek, Roman, North African, Byzantine, Ottoman, Jewish, Islamic, Slavic, and even Mongol influence. Traveling from Italian Rimini, on the northwestern Adriatic coast, then around the sea’s northern shore through Italy and Slovenia, and finally back south through Croatia, Montenegro, and Albania, until he ends at the island of Corfu, Kaplan sifts through these diverse civilizational layers and ferrets out their persistence into the present.
Kaplan’s instincts as a travel writer are superb. He understands the importance of history and lingers over the particularity of each stop on his itinerary. He is a good listener, recording numerous conversations with local politicians and scholars, allowing their different perspectives to come to the fore. He appeals to art, architecture, and especially literature for the insight they offer into a people and its politics. He reads widely, collecting books at each stop along the way and letting one text lead him serendipitously to another. He knows that we come to understand ourselves only by being drawn out of ourselves, and that the great virtue of travel is to do precisely that.
Adriatic is nevertheless at times a frustrating book, in part because Kaplan is surprisingly reticent about the argument he wishes to advance, which the patient reader must allow to emerge gradually from his rich portraits of individual cities. The book is an exercise in induction, with conclusions emerging slowly through the accumulation of detail. Only in the book’s last 10 pages does Kaplan give a clear and concise statement of the argument he has been building, which I would summarize in terms of four interrelated claims.
First, Europe is not a homogeneous cultural unit, but rather the product of numerous cultural influences, from north and south, east and west; from Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia; from western Christendom, eastern Orthodoxy, and Islam; and from various imperial formations, including the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Habsburg Empires, as well as—in our own day—the European Union. Efforts to separate these influences from one another, draw sharp lines among them, and single out only certain elements as “European” are misleading.