A tour underground

The Balkans are a place that defies description, a complex patchwork of ethnic and religious identities with an intricate and violent history. Shon Meckfessel, a young writer born and raised in Sacramento, grew to love Eastern Europe during his travels there. Enough, in fact, to create Suffled How It Gush: A North American Anarchist in the Balkans—a comic, chilling, frustrating and engrossing look at the region. Meckfessel, who now lives in San Francisco, includes his reflections and experiences in the book, and the quantum logic of the observer affecting the observed is nowhere more appropriate than when applied to this subject matter.

The strange title is taken from the “English” label on an Albanian water bottle that Meckfessel found and documented, along with many other examples of packaging, street signage and graffiti that he encountered along the way. Many of these are provided in the copious photographs illustrating the book, taken by the author. “Go Gay” hairspray, a “Secret Tourism” agency, the “Greedy” chocolate bar, and a “Yugoslavia: European Nightmare” T-shirt, are just a few examples of the surreal approach to language that, for Meckfessel, embodies the Balkans—what he calls “applied pataphysics,” a science of the absurd. “Tell Us Your Secret Name” reads the graffiti on a wall in Belgrade.

The book is organized by country, with its chronology uncertain, but frequent references to post-9/11 history make it apparent these travels were recent. The first section documents Meckfessel’s travels in the countries of the former Yugoslavia, with the second section covering Greece, Romania and Albania. At one point in the book, Meckfessel tells us of a Macedonian friend of whom he believes, “If anyone is someday going to write a Howard Zinn-ian ‘People’s History of the Balkans,’ Momir is the one.” Through dropping this reference, Meckfessel hints at what he’s up to in Suffled How It Gush: “people’s history.”

He is highly critical of the NATO bombings, ethnic cleansing and nationalism in all its guises, and, as the book’s subtitle would suggest, Meckfessel sees the State itself as a primary source of the Balkans’ problems. In this sense, the book is a polemic. However, unlike Zinn, Meckfessel is really more of a punk-rock ethnologist than a historian, focused on a portrait of the present, taking painstaking note of real-life details. In place of academic analysis, Meckfessel gives us conversations, cultural quirks, snack packages, bullet-scored walls, explanations of Bosnian Sufism and nationalist “Turbofolk” music; the clash of modern and ancient worlds. He records the perspectives of young Communists and right-wing skinheads with equal good faith, if not equal respect.

While some readers will be turned off by the radical slant, and other readers engaged with it for that reason alone, the best reason to read Suffled How It Gush is the bizarre, poignant and hilarious first-person episodes Meckfessel recounts. Here is Balkan life revealed through its people, richly resilient and inventive. Meckfessel’s stories revolve around drunken revelry and punk-rock shows, vodka-soaked encounters on trains and buses, and late-night adventures that turn international strangers into confidants and street philosophers, improvising arguments on geopolitics that are as beautiful as they are impossible. In one episode of interest to Sacramento readers, a Serbian policeman and rabid Vlade Divac fan nearly cries when he learns that Meckfessel has never seen a Kings game.

The rambling narrative, along with Meckfessel’s habit of dropping the reader into the middle of a story without setting the scene, at times makes the book feel disjointed. But one can tolerate a bit of chaos in a book with chaos as its subject. For an up-close, non-objective view of the Balkans, and a tour of the international underground, you couldn’t do better than Suffled How It Gush.