Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry, by Santo Cilauro et al

Molvania

Ah, Molvania.  These backward eastern European countries whose location you can never quite put your finger on, Moldova, Moldavia, and of course Molvania, strange places that all look like one of those dingy Béla Tarr films where nothing much happens for three hours, until a preserved whale visits town.  Molvania certainly sounds like a country still in touch with its inner Balkan brigand, and Jetlag Travel Guides are to be congratulated for bringing us more than we could ever want to know about travel there.  I did wonder exactly where it is on the map: it’s landlocked and seems to be located about where Serbia is, next to Romania and Bulgaria, but when I discovered it was close to Ukraine and various other European countries I gave up trying to find it.  Actually it sounds rather like Moldova, but without most of the human rights violations.

OK, it’s not a real country thankfully, but the careful attention to detail may confuse the unwary, until they have read a few pages anyway.  In form it parodies the condescending style of a Fodor’s, Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, while mocking those earnest travellers (never tourists) who think that nowhere is as good as it used to be and having a tough time is the mark of an authentic experience.  It is also perhaps poking fun at those people who use a pre-digested guide as a crutch, instead of a foundation for exploration that requires them to use intuition and local knowledge for an experience that is different to that of everybody else toting the same volume.

Molvania chimes with prejudices about what eastern Europe must be like for people who have little idea what lies to the east and south of Berlin.  It takes aim at the ignorance of people who still think of central and eastern Europe in terms of Soviet hegemony, as one undifferentiated mass (Belarus?  Who knew?).  They just assume it’s desolate and despoiled, the countryside inhabited by subsistence-level peasants living on root crops, the towns full of brutalist Soviet-era blocks, with bureaucracy and corruption everywhere, and a level of alcoholism that reduces life expectancy to 55.  Even when they realise Molvania is a spoof they will conclude it has more than a grain of truth.

Is the book racist?  It’s certainly full of stereotypes, and the frequent negative references to gypsies might elicit some discomfort.  The humour is often laid on a little crudely, but compared to say Borat it’s a masterpiece of subtlety.  It is unlikely to challenge any prejudices, and will doubtless reinforce a few.  It may though encourage a few people to find out what the middle of Europe is really like, and help them to appreciate that it has moved on since 1991, albeit often very slowly.

The odd thing is that if you read it from cover to cover, rather than dipping in as most people normally would with a travel guide, it is so detailed that Molvania takes on a strange solidity, and you can visualise it quite easily.  Brilliantly-chosen photographs add to that sense of reality.  Clearly a large number of people find the joke enjoyable enough to want to prolong it, as a consequence of which Molvania has grown beyond the confines of a Jetlag Travel Guide and is attracting an increasing number of spoof videos, including a couple of very entertaining Eurovision ‘entries’.  It’s surely only a matter of time before someone develops a computer game so we can have a virtual holiday there, or tries to market garlic brandy.  The opportunities are endless, unfortunately.

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