Alex Drace-Francis’s book contains a collection of eleven essays which study representations of Romanian culture from the eighteenth century to contemporary times, each of them taking a somewhat different angle. As such, the book does not claim to have the coherence of a classical monograph. At the same time, while the articles differ in scope and length, they are organised around overarching themes which provide the basis for a study which is more systematic than many of the comparable essay collections written by the same author over a long period of time. The chapters follow a chronological order and are clustered around five parts. These are as follows: social representations, travel and alterity, myths and discourses of the nation, at the verbal frontiers of identity, and last but not least East–Westernism in the Cold War age. In the introduction, the author situates his work within existing research into geocultural identity. He also explains how his account complements Anglo-Saxon scholarship which has been dominated by postcolonial studies and within that framework has been particularly influenced by Edward Said’s concept of orientalism. While acknowledging the relevance of the postcolonial method, Drace-Francis also calls attention to its potential pitfalls, particularly that by playing down the degree of intellectual agency in South-east Europe it may render the region subject to passive representations. Moreover, the author also warns against the simplifying tendencies which may emerge if representations are perceived in a monolithic way. It is precisely the multifarious nature of representations which constitutes the focus of literary image study—his chosen primary methodology. The first part of the book contains one single chapter, the most substantial piece in the volume, and it focuses on images of the Romanian peasant as they evolved from an ancient stereotype into a modern symbol. It looks at representations of the Danubian peasant in classical and modern literature and reveals how European portrayals exerted an influence on, and overlapped with, these images. It is at this stage that, by having recourse to Benedict Anderson’s famous concept, the author reflects on the title of his own book: ‘traditions of invention’. Here ‘invention’ does not imply the non-existence of the peasant as a phenomenon before it had become a subject of discourse. Rather, it indicates the process whereby it had been gradually discovered for political, scholarly and literary purposes. The second part comprises four essays on early Romanian travel texts, which were produced between the late eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth century. The chapter dedicated to the eighteenth-century traveller Ignaz von Born reveals that the concept of ‘Eastern Europe’ was by no means heterogeneous, and in fact it was possible for an East European author to represent another East European group as fundamentally different. Another chapter in this section, on Dinicu Golescu’s Account of My Travels (1826), demonstrates the traveller’s fascination with the civil, cultural and infrastructural developments and practices in the West—be they hospitals, schools, theatres or aesthetically pleasing buildings. At the same time, the chapter also shows that, even though Golescu appreciated these foreign phenomena and frequently criticised local Wallachian developments, he did not advocate the unconditional acceptance of European models. This also applied to the genre of his work, which did not follow any particular European tradition. Instead, Golescu relied both on domestic and foreign rhetorical models and his account combined personal ambition with cosmopolitan patriotism. The third and fourth parts of Drace-Francis’s book focus on eminent literary figures such as Mihail Eminescu, Ion Luca Caragiale, Eugen Ionescu and Herta Müller, while the final part contains two pieces on images of Romania in British literature in the second half of the twentieth century and on Romanian images of the West under Ceauşescu’s Romania respectively. While the principal themes are explained clearly at the outset, perhaps the volume might have benefited from a concluding chapter in which the discussed subjects could have been drawn closer together. At times, specialised knowledge is necessary on the part of the reader to be able to follow a book focusing on Romanian culture. Nevertheless, the questions it asks, and the methodological frameworks it uses, extend well beyond the arguably narrow field of ‘Romanian studies’, and even South-east European area studies. As such, the book may be inspirational for historians, literary scholars, and social scientists interested in travel, myths, representations and identity, irrespective of the regional focus of their expertise. The second book under review, edited by Matthew Rampley, presents the outcome of the project Discourses of the Visible, which was funded by the European Science Foundation. The book makes a contribution to ‘critical heritage discourse’ and is concerned with the intersections of national (and nationalist) politics and discourses of art, architecture and heritage. This topic (the construction of heritage and the invention, and reinvention, of tradition) has been extensively researched in the recent period; yet its scope has been insufficient in the context of Central and Eastern Europe. The majority of the eight essays in this volume, therefore, are dedicated to this geographical region. Their topics include Trianon memorials in Hungary, public sculpture in Cluj/Kolozsvár, collective memory and architectural heritage in Germany, as well as Polish and German architectural heritage in Danzig/Gdansk. Two chapters focus on South-east Europe and discuss Georgi Dimitrov’s mausoleum in Sofia and the construction of Greek identity in the urban space of Athens. The final chapter examines cosmopolitan versus nationalist visions in Rem Koolhaas’ exhibition, The Image of Europe. It shows that, however ambitious this event was, it failed to address uncomfortable questions in the history of the ‘European project’. The third volume, edited by Tea Sindbaek and Maximilian Hartmuth, had its origins in a conference held in Copenhagen in 2005. It thus belongs to the genre of ‘conference proceeding’ which is not to diminish its significance, but to indicate that the collection includes somewhat shorter essays rather than full-blown articles. What connects these essays is that they seek to contest the stereotype that ‘unchanging legacies’ have determined the history of the Balkans and that, to a certain extent, these legacies can help explain the instabilities and hostile episodes in the region’s past and in its present. In this context the volume points out that the Habsburg legacy in the Balkans is typically assessed more positively than its Ottoman heritage. Thus, while nostalgic attitudes towards the Habsburg heritage abound (thanks to the successes of post-Second World War Austria and Germany), the instabilities and hostile episodes in the Balkan region are often attributed to the Ottoman historical legacy. A particularly telling instance elucidated in the volume is how the image of the ‘Turk’, merged with images of the ‘Albanian’, was instrumentalised in the role of the malevolent Other in the early phase of the Kosovo conflict. Moreover, as the essays reveal, contemporary societies in the region have displayed the tendency to put the blame on the ‘Turk as the other’ when trying to account for deficiencies such as backwardness and political corruption. In addition to demonstrating how imperial legacies are being constantly reinterpreted, the essays in the volume also show that they frequently overlap. This has particularly been the case with the city of Sarajevo, where the Habsburg and Ottoman legacies have both been internalised and negated at times. While none of the three books is entirely devoid of a certain degree of unevenness, their commitment to critical analysis, and their combination of a sound regional expertise with the application of appropriate methodologies, make them worthwhile and recommended readings for specialists and non-specialists alike. © Oxford University Press 2017. All rights reserved.
The English Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 21, 2017
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