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so near yet so far
on 6 May 2009
I really wanted to like this book - both the cover and the blurb promised so much - and, indeed, it is unputdownable as one wades through the descriptions of glory, carnage, tarnished dreams, rank stupidity and lonely bravery that characterised Europe's most bloody century, so I guess on one hand it delivered.
On the other however it's let down like so many history books by poor editing: hard to read maps, sloppy typos, uncomfortable and inconsistent translations (from the Dutch by Sam Garrett), especially of placenames and personal names and titles, or no translation at all, which had this German graduate stumped; phrases and quotes are left untranslated yet the brief biographical glossaries at the back include Hitler and Stalin, leading one to wonder just who this book is aimed at.
Mak is an historian of the old school, his interviews are largely with the wealthy and famous; other voices are often anonymous. Whole cities or peoples are brushed aside with a generalisation or a cliche. That in itself is not a problem but perhaps I was seduced by the cover of this Vintage UK paperback edition into hoping this was the travelogue of a young man hitching through Europe with open eyes, not those of a much older man viewing Europe from the comfort of his plush hotel or railway carriage...