A TRAVEL LITERATURE CLASSIC INTRODUCED BY GEOFF DYERFirst published in 1942, Rebecca West's epic masterpiece is widely regarded as the most illuminating book to have been written on the former state of Yugoslavia. It is a work of enduring value that remains essential for anyone attempting to understand the enigmatic history of the Balkan states, and the continuing friction in this fractured area of Europe.
West used the journey as a framework upon which she hung her penetrating, salient observations about the culture and society. Furthermore, West offered huge chunks of history and socio-economic-religious insights all related with unwavering perception. Nor did her departures from the strict narration of the travel experience leave the reader wondering or confused. Her flights into ancient Roman history, medieval dynastic intrigues, 600 year old battle formations, or twentieth century political juntas always related to and supported her immediate point. West arranged her material geographically and delivered her servings of history as they related to her travels; chronology took the hind post.
West skillfully constructed brilliant sentences and wove them into practically perfect paragraphs. Her polished prose initially charmed; however, after many hundreds of pages, the incessant similes, metaphors and imagery became overwhelming and cloying. Yet, by the end, the sheer power of her ability to make intelligent observations and phrase them well outweighs all reservations. There was never a sense that she was not fully in control and keenly conscious of both style and content. In an era preceding the photojournalist, West captured vivid images with her words, when she offered such descriptions as:
She did not look like one fat woman, she looked like a cluster of beautiful women loosely attached to a common centre, and she was multiplied again by her excess of widow’s weeds, which were enough for the bereaved of a small town.
Recurring themes emerged as West unfolded her experiences. One theme was that external forces have repeatedly influenced the Balkan peoples. Aside from the many centuries of explicit control by Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Austrians or Hungarians, West found even more insidious the pressure and influence exerted on the Balkans by Germany, Great Britain and Russia. While Byzantines, Turks and even Austrians at least enjoyed the flimsy excuse of geo-graphical proximity, shared borders, and the need for common defense, Britain, France, Russia and Germany had no legitimate business there and were clearly meddling. West showed that the lure of Balkan lands as buffer zones or coun-ter-balances to other territories repeatedly proved irresistible to the larger powers. West suggested that the interference of external powers have seldom been motivated by or the cause of lasting benefit for the Balkan people.
Another theme West built upon was the concept of sacrifice, particularly self-sacrifice. West came to see this theme pervading the main Balkan experience. She observed an ancient folk ceremonial slaughter of lambs, which was enacted as a peasants’ fertility ritual. The sight of the innocent lambs’ throats being cut unleashed a flood of bitterness from West regarding the role of religion in people’s everyday lives and the vast amount of superstition that still engulfs people. She found the ritual barbaric and brutal; the cruelty and ignorance she observed somewhat tarnished her high opinion of the Slavs. Subsequently, while touring Kossovo, West heard a poem dear to the hearts of Serbians about the grey falcon, representing Elijah, who offered spiritual salvation at the price of worldly destruction. The poem triggered an epiphany in West whereby she came to view the story as a symbol of Yugoslavia, the Balkans and much of Western liberalism as well. The poem related how a Serbian prince chose moral salvation over yielding to the expedient yet immoral act. Since it was barbaric to slaughter the lambs and commit such an abhorrent act, it therefore remained to place one’s self in the position of the more or less willing victim. This notion dis-turbed West almost as much as the savage slaughter of the lambs.
Eventually West achieved some synthesis of these troubling themes. In the book’s epilogue, written a few years after her journey and in the height of World War II, she observed that to fight, even with the full knowledge that one is likely to be defeated, is not the same thing as stepping into the role of the sacrificial lamb. She noted that Yugoslavia had just stood up to the Nazi army; although it was overpowered, the action did not smack of submission and sacrifice, rather of gallantry, bravery and resistance.
The book, hailed as West's masterpiece and considered one of the greatest books of the 20th century, chronicles a 6-week journey that she and her husband made in the late 1930s through the ex-Yugoslavia and provides a mosaic of country and town life in this troubled region. She provides a sweeping account of its history and politics, and while critics question the accuracy of some information, it gives us outsiders a good starting place to explore Balkan history. In general, she keeps a highly romanticized view of the peoples, and amidst some captivating prose and interesting insights, a degree of intolerance shows through.She is especially biased towards the Serbs, termed by some reviewers as her fascination over their "noble savage" character. The Slavs are an intensely nationalistic people, and West is able to depict this very well, and how in history this has served them two ways, to defeat their common oppressor, the Turks, and later on, to divide them along religious lines. West tells us why all these centuries, from the time of the Ottoman conquest, this region has always been volatile, and that their revolts and eventual victory against the Ottoman empire is not just a local or even regional achievement, but meant the defense of Western civilization against the East -- they fought for Europe's very existence.
West evokes picturesque and dramatic landscape. Here, she does not exaggerate, as I saw this for myself when I traveled to parts of the region last summer. Interestingly, nothing much seems to have changed in the countryside --- the wars that rocked the region after West wrote this book that resulted in its isolation from modernizing influences, has kept it like this. In every place she visits, she provides a historical context and some analysis, some accounts of which are quite riveting, two of which, for me, stand out -- the assassination of Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo (which triggered WWI), and the tumultuous reigns of the Serbian kings.
What is tiresome in this book is that West loves to go rambling on what seems at first a philosophical discourse but after a while, turns into some mystical reflections. I find this surprising --- she appears to be very rational and intellectual in her initial approach to exploring the story and the mindset of these peoples, but in trying to understand them, she somehow imbues mystical qualities to events and characters. In any case, she can go on and on, and it is nothing but mind-numbing. She also becomes quite redundant and predictable in her reactions and insights, and at times, quite narrow-minded (the meaning and her interpretation of the symbolism of the book's title, for one). What I also find lacking here, is her lack of interaction with the locals. She had a very knowledgeable guide, and got to meet important political and religious personages, but all the views she got were from the elite. Would it have mattered if she had had a serious conversation with one of those "noble savages" that she idealizes? I guess so... it would have rendered her observations a little more authentic, a little more engaged, and not merely views of the typical well-to-do, foreign tourist who obviously delighted in the exotic and strange ways of these people but who prefers to be detached anyway.
West wrote this book for 5 years, in the period when the rumbling of the imminent war was getting louder and closer. She provides in the Epilogue what i consider in the book to be her most incisive analysis, this time of the events that were sweeping Europe, and how again Yugoslavia would be drawn into the maelstrom.
In any case, this book is an experience to read. There is much to digest here, so it's best to be read in an unhurried way. Be prepared to be delighted, to be disturbed, to be surprised, to be entertained, to be informed, and also to question, to wonder, to understand --- a book which does this and more deserves to be read at least once.
This book seems to inspire somewhat of a love/hate relationship among readers. On one hand, the author's vivid and excellent writing combined with her tendency to go off on long, involved tangents related to history, art history, religious history, etc., make the book unique. On the other hand, it can't be denied that the book is not exactly objective.
I think the thing that needs to be kept in mind with this book is that it is not objective history. It's what might be a called a historical travelogue - while this book is in some ways about the history of the former Yugoslavia, this book is more profoundly about what it is that Rebecca West found in pre-WW2 Yugoslavia. A large part of what called to her in Yugoslavia, what made her fall in love with Yugoslavia, was the history - or at least her interpretation thereof. I think "interpretation" is really the key word here - this book is a deeply personal interpretation of the history of the West Balkans that reflects both a great degree of historical knowledge and a lack of desire to be a historian.
I think this book is wonderful and unique -- but anyone who confuses this book with an objective historical resource is grievously wrong. The compelling nature of Rebecca West's writing naturally gets readers interested in the region - but the necessary next step is to channel that interest into more serious readings about the history of the former Yugoslavia. This was Robert Kaplan's mistake, to be sure, and he should have known better. The closest analogy I can think of is perhaps taking Tocqueville for a textbook of American history. Tocqueville, though, was more actively objective in his approach to America than West was towards the former Yugoslavia. Ultimately though, I think the lack of objectivity doesn't make the book any less worthwhile - it just means that readers need to be aware of what this book is and what it isn't.
West wrote on the brink of World War II, when she was "already convinced of the inevitability of the second Anglo-German war." The resulting book is colored by that impending conflict, and by West's search for universals amid the complex particulars of Balkan history. In the end, she saw the region's doom--and our own--in a double infatuation with sacrifice, the "black lamb and grey falcon" of her title. It's the story of Abraham and Isaac without the last-minute reprieve: those who hate are all too ready to martyr the innocent in order to procure their own advantage, and the innocent themselves are all too eager to be martyred. To West, in 1941, "the whole world is a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain." Unfortunately, little has happened since then to prove her wrong. --Mary Park
A masterpiece . . . as astonishing in its range, in the subtlety and power of its judgment, as it is brilliant in expression. (_The Times_, London)
Surely one of the great books of our century. (Diana Trilling)
Rebecca West’s magnum opus . . . one of the great books of our time. (Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker)
Filled with unforgettable characters, all the more remarkable because they are not characters, but actual people. It shows a lost way of a slower paced life in the very end of the 30s as the Yugoslav prepares for another round of warfare and ethnic tensions not merely under the surface as Croats/Serbs/Bosnians/Catholics/Orthodox/Muslims/Jews all attempt to make a go of their new state.
West's arguments are often suspect, but her writing is superb. I found the book to be a fascinating read.
Throughout my teetering adulthood I often assume and maintain numerous guises. Oh, I am a Southerner, I understand, I'm Irish, It is really for us Intellectuals to ponder, well, you might know if you were a Manchester United fan like I am. So it goes. These aren't fictions, as such, they simply are whiffs of reality rather than constitutional components. This flaccid list could also include I'm a Serb by marriage. I truly feel that I am but I can relate and certainly empathize. The principal reason I never read this book in the former Yugoslavia was that I feared I would be the everybore, asking questions about West's observations, as asking whether so-and-so spa was still in existence and could we go there, that sort of thing. When my wife and I were married 12 years ago I knew about 200 words in Serbian, now I likely know about 150. There isn't constant reinforcement for such in Indiana.
Life, however, is never as simple as that, and human beings rarely so potent.
Rebecca West traveled to Yugoslavia with her husband in the spring of 1937. She had been by herself the year before and returned to document the fascinating land as the dark clouds of war rumbled into view. There isn't a great deal of judgment about races or nations in these 1200 pages. That is refreshing. The pair arrive for a snowy Easter in Dubrovnik and travel to Zagreb and then Sarajevo. The piece here of Gavrilo Princip
and Franz Ferdinand is simply stunning. Then it is on to Belgrade and then to Macedonia, Kosovo (where the fateful battle of 1389 is explored in gorgeous detail) and finally Montenegro. there are a dozens of short sections detailing towns, vineyards and monasteries. The conceptual ambivalence of Roman rule is considered. Did the viaducts and roads outweigh the hegemony? Did the survival of Millennialist cults betray the fate of present day Bosnia? There is an exciting admixture of poetry and philosophy in these historical digressions, how the aesthetic sparkle of the Byzantines was allowed to sleep under 400 years of Ottoman degradation. Along that road, was the Turkish empire really so vacuous?
The narrative is propelled by the foil of their friend Constantine, a poet and Yugoslav official. He's a Serbian Jew married to Gerda, an ethnic German with a loathing of Slavs, the recriminations of Versailles and, well, apparently Rebecca West. This tension keeps the discussions and observations personal but the reader soon tires of Gerda's shrieking. I have been on bad road trips. I would've cut and ran. I finished the book earlier today and I remain afraid to check online for the fate of Constantine.
I reached the Epilogue of this wonderful book on the eve of the 2016 US election. Writing in 1941 when Yugoslavia had been over-run by Nazi Germany, West spells out the danger of mass political movements that arise from disaffected populations of industrial and urban societies. Their anger is so easily turned against the scape-goat, any available scape-goat. Slavs had been scape-goats for Turkey, Austria/Germany and Italian States for so long (sacrificial lambs). Having won a new found independence after centuries of sublimation, West pours out her praise for a people who chose to resist, having tasted goodness and national freedoms.