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A Balkan Adventure

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Contemplating diving into Rebecca West’s great Balkan travel adventure, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is like contemplating a long bungee jump. It offers both compulsion and revulsion, but once it is attempted, endured, enjoyed, you will live with the thrill of it for ever. I recently spent two months reading it, as slowly as I could, and when I finished I felt I had done the journey myself.

The book was published, in the middle of the Second World War, in two fat volumes. Adorning the first volume of my set, neatly stamped between Belgrade and Skopje on the invaluable route map on the front endpaper, and cruelly disfiguring the Dalmatian coast on the vital political map decorating the back endpaper, is the dread imprint ‘Discarded Shropshire Libraries’. That any library should have wantonly thrown out such a book is a shame, for it provides an intensely personal yet universal insight into the conflict engulfing the world at that time and one that Western decision-makers would have done well to read in the 1990s.

Black Lamb is both a marvellous recounting of hundreds of years of history and a brilliant modern travelogue. In 1937 Rebecca West and her banker husband Henry Maxwell Andrews travelled for several months in the Balkans. Their journey covered thousands of miles and encompassed Ljubljana, Zagreb, Susac, Split, Dubrovnik, Mostar, Kosovo, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Pristina, Peć, Skopje, Lake Ohrid (which, cartographically at least, nudges both Albania and Greece), and a hundred towns and villages in between. They visited monasteries, Roman ruins, sacred places, ancient battle sites, churches, mosques and street markets. They met gypsies, Byzantines, comic Nazi spies, pedagogues of all levels, doctors, beggars, exotic dancers, restaurateurs, shepherds, peasants, giants, disenfranchised Musselmen, dogs, goats, horses and an occasional chorus of chambermaids, wise washerwomen, monks and assorted irreligious types (even, at

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Contemplating diving into Rebecca West’s great Balkan travel adventure, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, is like contemplating a long bungee jump. It offers both compulsion and revulsion, but once it is attempted, endured, enjoyed, you will live with the thrill of it for ever. I recently spent two months reading it, as slowly as I could, and when I finished I felt I had done the journey myself.

The book was published, in the middle of the Second World War, in two fat volumes. Adorning the first volume of my set, neatly stamped between Belgrade and Skopje on the invaluable route map on the front endpaper, and cruelly disfiguring the Dalmatian coast on the vital political map decorating the back endpaper, is the dread imprint ‘Discarded Shropshire Libraries’. That any library should have wantonly thrown out such a book is a shame, for it provides an intensely personal yet universal insight into the conflict engulfing the world at that time and one that Western decision-makers would have done well to read in the 1990s. Black Lamb is both a marvellous recounting of hundreds of years of history and a brilliant modern travelogue. In 1937 Rebecca West and her banker husband Henry Maxwell Andrews travelled for several months in the Balkans. Their journey covered thousands of miles and encompassed Ljubljana, Zagreb, Susac, Split, Dubrovnik, Mostar, Kosovo, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Pristina, Peć, Skopje, Lake Ohrid (which, cartographically at least, nudges both Albania and Greece), and a hundred towns and villages in between. They visited monasteries, Roman ruins, sacred places, ancient battle sites, churches, mosques and street markets. They met gypsies, Byzantines, comic Nazi spies, pedagogues of all levels, doctors, beggars, exotic dancers, restaurateurs, shepherds, peasants, giants, disenfranchised Musselmen, dogs, goats, horses and an occasional chorus of chambermaids, wise washerwomen, monks and assorted irreligious types (even, at one point, a stray Scottish miner). From most of these characters West teased out anecdotes, often bloody, always perceptive. Perhaps that is why, in style at least, the book resembles a long and delightfully rambling novel, in which even the most minor characters are pinned to the page with deliberate and detailed precision. Here is the German businessman whom Miss West and her husband encounter on the train from Salzburg to Zagreb, the real starting point of their journey:
When we came back [from dinner in the restaurant car] the businessman was telling how, sitting at his desk in his office just after the war, he had seen the bodies of three men fall past his windows, Spartacist snipers who had been on his roof and had been picked off by Government troops; how he had been ruined in the inflation, and had even sold his dog for food; how he had made a fortune again by refinancing of a prosperous industry, but had never enjoyed it because he had always been afraid of Bolshevism, and had worried himself ill finding the best ways of tying it up safely; and now he was afraid. He had spent the last twenty-three years in a state of continuous terror. He had been afraid of the Allies; he had been afraid of the Spartacists; he had been afraid of financial catastrophe; he had been afraid of the Communists: and now he was afraid of the Nazis.
As well as her utterly imperturbable husband, West travels with an officially appointed guide, Constantine, who is also a Jew, a Yugoslav and a famous Serbian poet, and a mostly silent but sometimes vociferously opinionated chauffeur, Dragutin, who has a thing about eels, wears a peaked cap and somehow always manages to get petrol for the official car. From time to time, Constantine’s wife Gerda, an explosively haughty German, tags along too, bringing a particular tension to certain stages of the journey:
It did not seem possible that Gerda had said good-bye to us. That, literally, was all she said. She had extended her hand and uttered the single word ‘Good-bye’, its starkness unpalliated by any acknowledgement that she had been our guest for a fortnight. It seemed to me that she might have said something, for she had been great fun at dinner the night before, being rude to me with peculiar virtuosity, using pettiness as if it were a mighty club. While Constantine saw her off on the Belgrade train we sat outside the hotel and drank iced beer, and felt weak but contented, like fever patients whose temperature has at last fallen.
Throughout the book, the awful, brooding dichotomy of Croatia with its Catholics and Roman alphabet and Serbia with its Eastern churchgoers and Cyrillic alphabet, not to mention the aspirations of all the smaller national groupings which then made up the Yugoslavian landmass, is teased out, exposed and made unforgettable. No other travel book I have read has combined the twin elements of authoritative knowledge and entertainment so stylishly. West is good on architecture, wonderful on natural vistas. Her summary of the various histories of the places she visits, regal, military, religious, is perfect, as is her description of the legacy of the Ottomans. The countryside, equally, comes alive on the page. Here is Podgorica, in Montenegro:
It is an astonishing country, even to those who know the bleakness of Switzerland and Scotland and the Rockies. There one sees often enough trees growing askew from the interstices of a hillside paved with rocky slabs; but here it is as if a volcanic eruption had been arrested just at the moment when it was about to send the whole countryside flying into the air. The hillside bulges outwards, and slabs and trees jut out at frantic angles to a surface itself at a frantic angle. The inhabitants of such a fractured and anfractuous landscape are obliged to alter some of the activities that might be thought to be unalterably the same the world over. There could be no such thing as strolling a few hundred yards from one point to another; the distance could only be covered by jumping, striding and climbing, unless a track were made.
I will not give away the significance of the black lamb and grey falcon of the title, but if you wish to understand the simmering stew that bubbled up from the entity called Yugoslavia after the First World War and that is now a group of disparate nations, and if you wish to read a book of silken intricacy and understated power, then you should read what I think may the best travel book ever written.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 14 © Malcolm Gluck 2007


About the contributor

Malcolm Gluck writes about wine but also loves travelling.

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