MacLean is an accomplished writer; his immersive prose crackles with wit and wry humour, and captures scenes and personalities with aplomb. As a narrator, he is frank about his own liberal beliefs and unabashedly partisan in his thumping of reactionaries, ethno-nationalists and xenophobes. But if his colourful encounters with Europeans from alt-right Polish executives to German neo-fascists offer a fascinating and grim portrait of our current predicament, how compelling is MacLean’s explanation of how we got here? Pravda Ha Ha argues that unprincipled leaders across the continent have unleashed a blizzard of lies and self-serving myths in order to deflect public anger about poverty and powerlessness on to scapegoats and imaginary enemies.
MacLean is a compassionate writer, and he balances his stories of men and women of power, such as a minor oligarch and an American banker, with those of the dispossessed; much of this ambitious book is not an easy read, with stories of forced labour, people trafficking and worse. Heart of darkness doesn’t cover it. And MacLean quotes one devastating statistic: in 1989, the year the wall fell, 11 countries worldwide had border walls or fences. Now more than 70 have them.