Date finished: 2/14/12
How I found this book: When I told my brother about this project, he responded with the following e-mail: “I recommend ‘Playing the Moldovans at Tennis’ since you are unlikely to find a more interesting book about Moldova. It isn’t quite as good as ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’ by the same author, but your choices for Ireland are much more diverse.”
A few years ago I read an excellent book entitled The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner in which the author travels around the world to countries which rank as notably happy or unhappy based on happiness surveys. Moldova is one of the unhappy. In fact, if I remember correctly, it is pretty much the unhappiest country that isn’t a war zone or desperately impoverished. In reading about Eric Weiner’s visit, I was definitely left with impression that people in Moldova were pretty miserable. So I was curious whether Playing the Moldovans at Tennis would portray Moldova differently.
The premise of the book is that the author has made a bet that he can beat all of the players of the Moldovan national football (soccer) team at tennis. (He avoids mentioning until the end of the book that he is in fact ranked as the 45th best tennis player in England.) His previous book about a bet that he could travel around Ireland carrying a fridge was quite successful, so I assume he was quite happy to take on another wacky bet. I’d categorize the book as funny and mildly enjoyable, but not amazing. Not surprisingly, it isn’t that easy to track down the players and convince them to play tennis. More than half of the book goes by before he manages to play a single one. That’s okay though because the tennis games themselves are really the least exciting part of the book. The descriptions of life and travels in Moldova are much more interesting.
Overall, Tony Hawks also paints a picture of Moldovans as morose and unsmiling and life in Moldova as grim and colorless. At the same time he also paints a more affectionate picture and becomes close to the family he stays with. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, so it’s understandable that they might rank low on the happiness scales. Particularly given that studies show that it is not absolute wealth but rather wealth relative to neighbors that has the most influence on happiness. A lack of streetlights at night combined with open manholes whose covers have been stolen for scrap metal probably doesn’t help. (The book was written in the late 90’s, hopefully this has improved.) Interestingly, the Gypsies in Moldova are apparently relatively well off, with a settlement of large houses. This comes up in the book because Tony Hawks decides to bring a round plastic table as a gift to the new Gypsy king whose name happens to be Arthur. It’s that sort of book…
Having two data points now on how Moldova appears to outside visitors, I would like to see how Moldovans are portrayed by an actual Moldovan author. How do Moldovans see themselves? Do they see themselves as unhappy?* I went so far as to do some light Google searching for Moldovan novels, but without success. I found an interview with a Moldovan author in which he mentions several other Moldovan authors he likes, but sadly none of them seem to have been translated into English.
*There seems to be a Facebook group entitled “Moldova is the happiest” created in response to The Geography of Bliss. If I were Moldovan, I would probably be unhappy with the way my country has been presented too.