Travel writing is a wild genre and Rory MacLean’s “Pravda Ha Ha” is perhaps the wildest travel book I’ve come across. It begins in Moscow, where MacLean persuades a dodgy Russian oligarch to share a sliver of pipiska putina, a rare, psychedelic truffle (named for Vladimir Putin’s private parts) that launches the author, and the reader, on an Alice in Wonderland-like journey through a post-Soviet landscape of fiction-fueled nationalist narratives.
Back in 1989, MacLean wrote “Stalin’s Nose,” a travelogue about the fall of the Cold War as it was experienced on the ground. Thirty years later, in “Pravda Ha Ha,” he retraces his original journey, but backward, traveling from Russia to Britain in order “to try to understand what had gone wrong.” He asks, “Why — after liberating themselves from Soviet tyranny — had Russians surrendered their freedom for Dictatorship 2.0?” and also, “How could so many in the West have fallen for the lies and spin, dragging democracy to this precarious moment?”
And so he travels from Moscow to the Crimea, back up to St. Petersburg and Solovki, across to Estonia, Kaliningrad and Transnistria — a U.S.S.R. holdout where unscrupulous men run an unofficial state; it’s the epitome of moral and geographic ambiguity. Then on to Ukraine, Hungary, Poland and Germany, where MacLean gives voice to the refugees whom nationalists fear. He meets locals everywhere he goes, dining, dancing and staying with them. But he moves so quickly that we never get to really know anyone or anyplace, and this makes for easy but ephemeral reading.
It’s formulaic travel journalism: Go somewhere for a couple of days, meet some people, ask them questions, report the interesting things they say. And like most contemporary travel writers, MacLean gives himself a starring role in his narrative. He helps a Nigerian refugee leave Russia, shouts at drunken bigots in Hungary, and argues with right-wing propagandists in Poland. In his story, MacLean is a defender of journalistic integrity, an exposer of hypocrisy and a proponent of truth.
But in shaping his characters into caricatures of sinister nationalists and brave liberals, MacLean dodges the tougher, more nuanced questions. For instance, isn’t what we’re seeing in the political landscape an inevitable result of capitalism? As MacLean’s Russian oligarch says, “Capitalism is free wolves living among free sheep, for sure.” So why wouldn’t wily politicians kneecap opposition by systematically taking over the media, the police and the courts?
The “real end of Europe” is not geographical, but political. As MacLean writes, Europe is “fragile, fragmented and lost in a maze” because of “skillful and ambitious charlatans,” the populists who exploit prejudices, distort the past and steal the future. “Their promise to save the nation from a corrupt elite is a fiction,” MacLean asserts. True, but here’s the thing: People like fiction. Many people even prefer stories to truth.
And so while reading “Pravda Ha Ha,” it occurred to me that the problem — with the East as well as West — is not liars but the people who believe the lies. The unbelievable human capacity for credulity.
Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and many other publications.
Pravda Ha Ha
By: Rory MacLean.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 343 pages, $27.