Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis - Tony Hawks

No, not the skateboarder - this is the Tony Hawks of Morris Minor and the Majors fame, purveyors of novelty pop in the mid-80's. Since sales of Stutter Rap have probably dropped off a bit in the last few years, Hawks has changed his career to that of humourous travel writer, usually with some kind of bizarre twist to liven up the standard travelogue format. In this case it takes the form of a drunken bet, made during a World Cup match, that he would be able to beat the entire Moldovan national football team at tennis. Rather than backing down in the cold light of sobriety, he actually bothers to go to Moldova to track them all down for tennis matches, armed only with a list of names. Hawks was once a bit of a tennis pro so has few qualms about his sporting abilities; the real challenge is dealing with the bureaucracy and infrastructure of this strange, backwater country.

It sounds gimmicky, and it is, but Hawks has an infectious enthusiasm for his ridiculous quest, and the sections on Moldova itself are absolutely fascinating. The book was written not too long after the collapse of Communism, and so we get a great portrait of a poor country still struggling with Western concepts, where only the worst aspects of capitalism have taken hold, and the old Party officials are still clinging on to power. There are corrupt businessmen, rich gipsies, untrustworthy customs officials and a whole cast of ordinary Moldovans, stoically ploughing through the obstacles for some kind of normal life; there are also eleven rather baffled footballers, as Hawks painstakingly tracks them down across distant parts of the country, even heading to Israel at one point after one is transferred.

With so much interesting material, it's not hard to make an entertaining travelogue, though Hawks does try a bit too hard to add in some unnecessary jokes; really, the setting speaks for itself, and the forced humour is quite jarring at times. The tale is at its best when he tells it straight. Even if, like me, you have little interest in tennis or the Moldovan football team, this is still worth a read; it's a rare portrait of a little-visited corner of Europe, and despite the awkward gags and overuse of cosy homilies, the story of his interaction with his Moldovan host family is genuinely heartwarming.



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