Rebecca West’s Tome on Yugoslavia

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West, with an Introduction by Christopher Hitchens, Penguin Classics.

I finished this non-fiction November read just at the end of November. It was probably my most challenging read this year, not because the prose was difficult to understand, but because I know so little of the subject and I didn’t have much background to put the book into context, so I never knew when I read West’s outspoken opinions and judgements whether they had a basis in reality, or were prejudiced or exaggerated or just plain wrong. For this book is not a simple travel account. It is also about history and politics and philosophy and religion and, not least, feminism. Very interesting, stimulating but also challenging to read.

In 1937 West and her husband travelled through Yugoslavia, a new country created after WWI with WWII already on the horizon. After their journey, West spent four years researching and published the book in 1941, as she explains in the Epilogue (no page number, as my Kindle edition didn’t have any for the Epilogue):

This return meant, for me, going into retreat. Nothing in my life had affected me more deeply than this journey through Yugoslavia.

[…]

I was obliged to write a long and complicated history, and to swell that with an account of myself and the people who went with me on my travels, since it was my aim to show the past side by side with the present it created

West travels through the Yugoslavian countries (or provinces?) of Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro. She gives beautiful descriptions of places and people, industry and art, but also includes a lot of historical details to show how the situation at the time was the result of historical events. When she visits Sarajevo, for example, she writes a lot about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie which was one of the causes that sparked off WWI. Of course, I’d known about that, but I’d only known the bare bones. I didn’t know anything about Franz Ferdinand and was very surprised to read her biography of him – he comes across as a lunatic, whose one redeeming characteristic was his love for his wife. I thought that this account was totally exaggerated, but when I looked him up on Wikipedia, I found out that West’s depiction was certainly based on fact, although somewhat exaggerated. To get a rounded picture I would have to read up on Franz Ferdinand, maybe read a biography, but I have to admit I’m not interested enough. Anyway, this reassured me that her account while exaggerated was nevertheless founded on valid history. I learned from West what happened to the assassins. Certainly no humane or enlightened treatment, to put it mildly.

West goes on to talk about the role of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in Balkan history, the legacy of Byzantium, the negative role played by all the various invaders, especially the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the West and the Ottoman Empire from the East. She talks about the rivalries between the peoples that made up Yugoslavia and the historical reasons for it. She visits a lot of cities, islands, churches, even a mine, and paints vivid pictures. There are passages in the book where I think that West is a genius and passages where I’m more or less horrified at her weird opinions.

West and her husband are accompanied by a Yugoslavian friend, called Constantine in the book, as West cannot name him for fear of nasty consequences under Hitler’s regime (Germany had invaded Yugoslavia by the time the book was published). The friend gives a running commentary on all sorts of topics. He was a Serb poet, of Jewish ancestry married to an anti-Semitic, anti-Serbian, ethnic German woman called Gerda in the book. Gerda is so unpleasant that at first I believed, again, in prejudice on the part of West, but a bit of research confirmed that she was in fact based on the real wife of her friend, with pro-German (probably Nazi) leanings. Sadly, Gerda’s horridness leads to an estrangement with Constantine (whose real name was Stanislav Vinaver) during the later part of the book.

The book takes its title from a ritual she witnesses, where a black lamb is sacrificed to bring fertility to women and keep misfortune away. West extrapolates from this scene a theory, which I, as a skeptic, find congenial, namely that the sacrifice of Christ for our sins should actually be seen the other way around. The murder of Christ, who was innocent and one of the best of men, shows up our sinful nature. No sacrifice of innocents ever leads to anything good. The grey falcon is a reverence to a poem which describes and lauds the actions of Tsar Lazar, a Serbian king, who fought and lost against the Ottoman Empire in Kosovo in 1389, leading to the subjugation of his people. The poem describes his actions as fighting for a lasting kingdom in Heaven (instead of an earthly kingdom). This West criticizes strongly. She argues that one should try ones very best to fight for happiness and peace on earth and not for heaven, which she equates with seeking death:

Destiny is another name for humanity’s half-hearted, yet persistent search for death. Again and again peoples have had the chance to live and show what would happen if human life were irrigated by continual happiness; and they have preferred to blow up the canals and perish of drought. They listen to the evil counsel of the grey falcon. They let their throats be cut as if they were black lambs.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Penguin, p. 948

She comments in the Epilogue:

But voluntarily to play a part in an act of cruelty, to subscribe to a theory of the universe which supposes a God capable of showering down blessings in return for meaningless bloodshed, that is to initiate a process of degradation which is infinite, because it is imaginary and not confined within the limits of reality.

Later on in the Epilogue, West contrasts the situation in the Kosovo in 1839 with the situation in England in 1939:

The difference between Kossovo [sic] in 1389 and England in 1939 lay in time and place and not in the events experienced, which resembled each other even in details of which we of the later catastrophe think as peculiar to our nightmare.

But there is hope:

For the news that Hitler had been defied by Yugoslavia travelled like sunshine over the countries which he had devoured and humiliated, promising spring.

This book is so long and goes off on so many fascinating tangents that one could easily write a PhD thesis or three about it. My little review doesn’t do it justice. I can only say that it is deeply fascinating, sometimes deeply strange. As Hitchens says in the Introduction (again, no page numbers), the book shows “the workings of a powerful and energetic mind”. The book as much about Rebecca West as it is about Yugoslavia and its history.

I found it so fascinating that it has inspired me to read up on the Balkans, to get a more rounded view. Also, I’d like to read some more by Rebecca West and especially a biography. I did a bit of research and found these additional books that have made it onto my TBR for next year (tentatively, maybe I will find others):

  • Carl Rollyson: Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl
  • Misha Glenny: The Balkans, 1804-2012: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers
  • Brian Hall: The Impossible Country

I can recommend the book wholeheartedly for readers who like reading about the topics that I’ve mentioned. It’s not useful for readers looking for a straight-forward travelogue.

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