Covering the Balkans

Vintage postage stamp. Serbia, 1991.

A Rough Guide to the Dark Side comes close to saying something profound – and then stops. A critique of mainstream news media, an account of corruption in post-millennial Serbia, music industry non-fiction, and a drug memoir. It tries to do too many things. Ironically, it’s the addiction theme that brings it all down.

Author Daniel Simpson had led a charmed life. After being educated at Cambridge, he started his journalism career at Reuters, and then moved to The New York Times, where he served as a one-man bureau covering the Balkans before quitting within months. Simpson had begun his tenure at the paper with good intentions, but quickly realized that the job wasn’t what he thought it would be. “Covering the Balkans for The New York Times consisted of monitoring whether The Serbs had agreed they were Bad Guys. Trying to explain why they hadn’t, or how ‘we’ made the opposite more likely, was tantamount to ‘understanding’ suicide bombers,” he writes.

However, Simpson’s disillusionment with the Times didn’t stop him from exploiting the paper’s prestige. He set up meetings with officials such as former NATO secretary general Javier Solana and Serbia’s Crown Prince Aleksandar under the guise that he was interviewing them for the paper, but then also exploited the opportunity to garner their support for the ECHO Festival, which he was co-creating. For added clout, Simpson used his work e-mail address to communicate about the festival, and brandished his New York Times business cards.  Ultimately, it’s up to the individual reader to decide if Simpson’s end goal of starting ECHO to revitalize Serbia’s youth culture – and to prove to himself that he could live up to the challenge – justifies his exploitation of the mainstream media’s power, while simultaneously condemning it.

Though Simpson and his partner G’s journey to create ECHO drives the narrative, the political climate in post-Yugoslavian civil war Belgrade remains an undercurrent throughout the memoir. Simpson was there when then-Prime Minister Djindjic was assassinated, and he halfheartedly covered the incident for the Times. Political corruption and the Balkan mafia seem to poison everything in the Serbian capital, apparently including ECHO, though Simpson is never really sure who was to blame.

One of A Rough Guide’s strong points is that it doesn’t sugarcoat any details. Simpson pours everything he knows into the pages, except for first names, allowing readers to judge where the plans for ECHO went wrong, and the degree to which the festival succeeded – or failed. At times, the author steps back from the chronological order of the story with insights that clearly benefit from hindsight. “Most things in life end badly, or they’d continue,” reads one of his one-liners. “All you have to do is believe your hype,” reads another. It’s at those times that the reader realizes that the “I” in the narrative isn’t the same Simpson who is writing it. Since ECHO, Simpson has learned about himself and his role, even unintentionally, in making the events unroll the way they did.

What makes Simpson’s life interesting – and thus worthy of a memoir – was his fast track up the media ladder, and his decision to create a music festival in Serbia. ECHO didn’t eclipse rival Serbian festival EXIT, and Simpson is not exactly to ECHO what Perry Farrell is to America’s venerable Lollapalooza. Still, Simpson tried, and that ought to count for something. On the other hand, the weakest points in the memoir are when Simpson describes the part of his life that isn’t that unique – his aformentioned drug use. The last thing the publishing world needs right now is another drug confession. The subject is simply overplayed.

At the same time, it’s understandable why Simpson and his editors devote so much of the story to his addiction. It’s essential to understanding who Simpson was at the time, and partially why he made decisions – or failed to make decisions – leading up to ECHO. They just overemphasized it. If A Rough Guide had dispensed with the six page long hallucination rant at its ending, the book could have culminated on a much stronger, more original note. Much like the idea of writing about being a disaffected New York Times reporter starting a music festival in restive Serbia, I think. The picture of the region that it renders is a lot more compelling. Not just of the substance abuse, but what reporters like Simpson feel forced to write about the former Yugoslavia.

 Photograph courtesy of wallygrom. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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