TANGLED ETHNIC LEGACIES IN THE BALKANS

With the war still raging in Bosnia, and threatening to spread through the rest of the former Yugoslav federation, the first books on the cataclysm are beginning to appear.

Both those who favor and those who oppose Western intervention in the region cite the Balkans' tangled ethnic legacies and lingering revenge motifs to justify their positions. The background offered in these books is indispensable for assessing those claims.

A PAPER HOUSE: THE ENDING OF YUGOSLAVIA, by Mark Thompson (Pantheon Books, 350 pp., $23). While none of the three works under review here is comprehensive, the one by Mark Thompson, with its heavy emphasis on Yugoslavia's postwar history, is the most informative.

Like many Balkans watchers, Thompson understood several years ago that Yugoslavia's carefully contrived unity was doomed. And so when this most prosperous of communist regimes began to slide into civil war in 1991, Thompson was already exploring the anatomy of Tito's patchwork socialist kingdom.

Thompson is especially gifted in explaining the origins of separatist tensions in relatively obscure areas like Istra, on the Adriatic coast, and Macedonia, southeast of Serbia.

In his chapter on Kosovo, which may be the region's next battleground, Thompson illustrates how Serbian paranoia conflicts with the ill-defined yearnings for independence of the local ethnic majority (Albanians, in the case of Kosovo); it is an apt reminder that the Serbs, for all their brutality, continue to view themselves as victims. Thompson's portrait of the Serbs is understanding but pointed, and he clearly believes that had the Western powers worked to contain Serb nationalism after Tito's death i n 1980, the ending of Yugoslavia might have proceeded more peacefully.

BALKAN GHOSTS: A JOURNEY THROUGH HISTORY, by Robert D. Kaplan (St. Martin's Press, 307 pp., $22.95). Taking a very different approach from Thompson's crisp sociological perspective, Robert Kaplan, in this widely debated book, has applied a literary sensibility to the Balkan question. In style, Kaplan's book is heavily indebted to Rebecca West's monumental "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (Penguin, 1982). West's 1,200 page magnum opus (first published in 1941) recorded her 1937 trip to Yugoslavia and remains one of the great nonfiction works of the 20th century, and the mother of all Balkan books. Like West, Kaplan has knit together social history, literary analysis, and personal reportage to try to convey the mental texture of life in the Balkans.

Kaplan's gift for symbolic detail and his ability to turn popular culture into historical allegory can give his prose a sweeping energy. On the other hand, it also means he falls into melodramatic generalizations, as when he describes the Balkans as "a dim stage upon which people raged, spilled blood, experienced visions and ecstasies" and finds a Balkan precedent for everything from the Nazi movement to Islamic fundamentalism.

One must also note that only a relatively small portion of "Balkan Ghosts" deals with Yugoslavia; Kaplan also reflects at length on the recent history of Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece. The section on Greece, where Kaplan lived for seven years, is notable for its personal tone and immediacy.

Even on familiar ground, however, Kaplan sometimes lapses into babbling xenophobia: One is embarrassed to read that Greece is "where the Balkans begin to be dissolved completely by the East," a region noted for its historic "inhumanity."

Such palaver aside, however, Kaplan is both fascinating and funny as he gives a detailed account of the recently removed government of Andreas Papandreou, a former economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, turned socialist thug.

THE BALKAN EXPRESS: FRAGMENTS FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF WAR, by Slavenka Drakulic (W. W. Norton & Co., 146 pp., $19.95). Equally literary in tone, Slavenka Drakulic's book gathers impressionistic essays that the Croatian columnist wrote from April 1991 to May 1992, while the Serbs were besieging the newly independent Croatian state. These pieces trace, as she puts it, the change in "one's perception of the world, that occurs on the inner side of war...."

Drakulic was, when the civil war came, already a prominent journalist with a cosmopolitan lifestyle. For such members of the educated, well-heeled elite throughout the Yugoslav federation, the nationalist passions that flared in the working class and rural villagers - and which post-communist bureaucrats in Belgrade and Zagreb skillfully manipulated - were nearly incomprehensible. Drakulic details her attempts to adjust her psyche to the irrational intensities of the war.

Like her friend Gloria Steinem, Drakulic believes that the personal is the political. This gives her writing immediacy but can also make it dismayingly self-absorbed and neurotic.

In describing her emotions toward a friend from Sarajevo who has become a refugee or her sympathy for a famous actress who is reviled in Croatia because she has continued to perform in Belgrade, Drakulic effectively dramatizes the individual repercussions of war.

At other times, as when she is worrying whether she will have to give up her nice apartment in Zagreb for a nice apartment in Paris, she sounds spoiled and tedious, especially since she never is exposed to actual combat. This is an honest but frequently annoying memoir.

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