27 November 2019, The Tablet

After the fall


After the fall

Tourists at the former Checkpoint Charlie in summer 2019
Photo: PA/DPA, Stefan Jaitner

 

Pravda Ha Ha: True Travels to the End of Europe
RORY MacLEAN
(Bloomsbury, 368 PP, £20)
Tablet bookshop price £18 • Tel 020 7799 4064

Checkpoint Charlie: The Cold War, The Berlin Wall and The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
IAIN MacGREGOR
(Constable, 352 PP, £20)
Tablet bookshop price £18 • Tel 020 7799 4064

In one of many surreal moments in Pravda Ha Ha, Rory MacLean is riding the Moscow metro when a bird, trapped in the crowded carriage, flutters in panic and then comes to rest on the shoulder of a young African man. Sami is a migrant whose ­muddled odyssey leads MacLean around the fringes of post-Soviet Europe. After adventures in Belarus and Finland, Sami ends up in a kebab shop in Lancashire, serving lads well soused in beers and vodka chasers.

Sami is one of many characters who popu­late MacLean’s travels across the chasm that separates today from the Europe of 1989. Thirty years ago, MacLean wrote a pioneering travelogue from the collapsed Communist world, when optimists saw a blissful dawn and chauvinism seemed to be as dead as Marx. It was a sad illusion, he concludes, but the sadness is tempered in his new book by wit, empathy and phrase-making skills of the sharpest kind. It is both melancholy and ­entertaining.

Over it all looms Russia. MacLean has a Russian friend in London, “a moneyed non-dom who filled her time with lunches at the Connaught and with Chelsea Centre evening classes: French literature, Italian cookery and Forex trading for beginners”. She leads him to Dmitri Denisovich, a “mini-oligarch” chicken billionaire who truffles for the fabulously costly mushroom known as Putin’s Pecker. Obligatory brushes with blondes, Kalashnikovs and ­alcohol follow. Denisovich expounds on the Russian soul. But Denisovich is in trouble of a vaguely McMafia kind and, much as he admires Vladimir Putin, exile ensues.

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