Early in Pravda Ha Ha, author Rory MacLean notes that “we all like a good story. We all need a narrative for our lives. The most potent stories give us an idea or individual to believe in, as well as someone to blame when things go wrong.” This thesis sits at the core of MacLean’s book, which otherwise defies categorization. Part travel journal, part oral history and part political treatise, Pravda Ha Ha ultimately raises more questions about its subject matter than it answers. But the idea that people of all backgrounds use storytelling to bind communities together and tear them apart is a steady throughline in MacLean’s work. Interestingly, MacLean suggests that he uses narrative for this purpose, too.
Pravda Ha Ha is MacLean’s account of a recent journey across Eastern Europe—from Moscow to Berlin and ultimately back to his native Britain—which mirrored a similar trip he took from Berlin to Moscow back in 1989 as an idealistic young writer. That original trip follows him like a grim shadow throughout the book. The optimistic ideals of liberalism and democracy that inspired him in 1989 seem to wither in the face of the current bleak realities of Eastern Europe. MacLean observes with sorrow and considerable anger the greed and corruption that have taken over the countries he once traveled across as a hopeful young man. In doing so, he asks us to consider how idealism and hope are sometimes not enough, especially in the face of powerful, wealthy interests.
If this all sounds a little dense and bleak, be assured that it doesn’t come across as such. MacLean’s book is immensely readable. The history and politics of Eastern Europe are tackled here with humor and dry wit. MacLean is not writing a textbook but rather a series of richly detailed anecdotes about his experiences. This is perhaps the major fault of the book: MacLean assumes that his experiences of Eastern Europe are universal. His experience of Russia, for example, as solely corrupt and hopeless may not necessarily be fair to the people who actually make their lives there.
However, this might also be a lesson of the book. Memory, MacLean suggests, goes a terribly long way to shape the way we view the world around us. In other words, memory becomes narrative, and narrative becomes the deciding factor in who writes history, and how. Pravda Ha Ha, in this way, is less a history of Eastern Europe than it is a history of Rory MacLean, and there are certainly worse histories you could read.