Monday, August 03, 2015

Everything you wanted to know about Yugoslavia but were afraid to ask

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West is an account of her six-week journey through Yugoslavia in 1937; part travelogue, part history, and altogether fascinating.

All of the area known as Yugoslavia endured hundreds of years of oppression from the Austrians, Hungarians, Venetians, and Turks. According to West, the people of Yugoslavia are ethnically Slavs, but with differences related to religion and to which power conquered them.  If I am understanding the book correctly, the ethnic violence that has plagued the area is related to long-standing mismanagement by the oppressive nations who would have benefited from internal conflicts.

West's sojourn begins in Zagreb, Croatia.  Accompanied by her husband and Constantine, a Yugoslavian government official, they progress to the coast of Dalmatia, then Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia, "Old Serbia" (Kosovo), and finish the journey in Montenegro.

For each region, West describes the sites and gives a detailed history, delving into the Roman and Byzantine empires, the middle ages, and the modern era through World War I.  Consider me educated because there was a lot about the history of this area that I didn't know.  In the nineties, I was distressed by the news of violence and atrocities committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.  Now I understand more about the history behind this violence.  West's visit occurred on the eve of World War II, when Yugolavia was having a brief respite from hundreds of years of violence and oppression, and was soon to be enduring more of the same.

But we can't forget that this book is also a travel story.  They visited villages, cities, and numerous monasteries, mountains, lakes and historic sites and the descriptions are so compelling, this region rocketed up to the top of my "places to visit" list. When they get to Belgrade, Constantine introduces his German wife Gerda.  It is a case of instant hatred.  West immediately pegs Gerda as a smug, complacent, racist, ignorant bigot, whereas Gerda despises West for her interest in Slavic people and culture, which she loathes. It's rather curious that she is married to a Slav, since she hates them so much.

Gerda insists on accompanying them on their journey to Macedonia, to the great distress of West and her husband.  (West compares it to "having to take a censorious enemy on one's honeymoon.") She proceeds to become the biggest wet blanket in travel literature.  In one incident, West offers Gerda the window seat on a train journey. "I think you will see more from the window on this side," West offers, and Gerda replies, "That would be interesting no doubt, if one had the slightest intention of looking out of the window."  Gerda effectively ruins the trip to Macedonia and also damages  Constantine's and West's friendship.  Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is hardly a funny book, but West's husband's side comments about Gerda provide moments of comedy.

At over 1,100 pages, this is not a light read, but it is consistently interesting and entertaining. I did find myself getting confused at some of the history.  So many different Serbian kings were named Alexander and they all seemed to have a habit of getting assassinated.  West, who was a feminist, writes a lot about the condition of women in some parts of Yugoslavia, which does not make for cheerful reading.  Since she clearly identifies with the left wing, her digs at homosexuality are surprising.  It's not a constant theme, but here and there she makes baffling references to the ability of men and women in Yugoslavia to be unselfconsciously beautiful because homosexuality is not widespread.

Overarching the travel and history are West's complex thoughts about human nature.  Upon successfully ditching Gerda before moving on to Old Serbia, West and her husband discuss Gerda as a type and wonder if the Gerdas of the world will ultimately triumph.  Certainly to this day, we are plagued with Gerdas--the smug complacents who refuse to learn.  Counteracting Gerda are the rare, contemplative people.  Of one such character encountered in BLGF, it is remarked that if one person like this one is born in every generation, civilization will not die.  We certainly don't want to be Gerdas, but most of us can't attain the level of enlightenment to be the other type either.  West doesn't suggest a middle path, but there must be one (I hope).

Rebecca West

Finally, the book's title references West's despair at the human tendency to welcome defeat.  She witnesses the disturbing rites performed in Kosovo on St. George's Eve, in which lambs are sacrificed on a stone, in exchange for favors from God.  Later, she reads the Serbian epic poem about a grey falcon, in which the medieval Serbian prince Tsar Lazar is given a choice between creating a kingdom on Earth or one in Heaven.  He chooses Heaven, which leads to the Serbs' defeat to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389.  With the threat from Nazi Germany looming, this is particularly frustrating to West, who sees that humans actually prefer to be the black lamb--the innocent who is sacrificed--and allow themselves to be overrun by evil.  Excellent food for thought.  You will not breeze through Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, but you will be richly rewarded for reading it.

And finally, a big shout out to my friend who comments here as "Not Beehive" for recommending this book to me.


  1. I'm embarrassed to admit that I recommended it but I never finished it. But after reading your review I'm motivated once again. It's not the kind of book you can put down and then pick up a few months (or years!) later, so I have to start at the beginning.

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating, but the length intimidates me. Maybe as a long-term project...

  3. This sounds fascinating. My boss just got back from Croatia and said it was absolutely beautiful.

    I try to avoid the Gertas of the world. They just simply suck and my life is too short to be bothered with them. I do think there is a path in the middle, because that's where most of us are. At least in my experience that's where most of us are.

  4. This does not sound like a book I would read, but I really enjoyed your review and thoughts. Also, just the title of the post made me laugh out loud :-)

  5. I'm interested that you post this after I recently was telling someone how LITTLE I know about this region and its history! I want to snag this...years ago I had a grad student who told me about Croatia, the "jewel of the Mediterranean." His wife was from there and he showed pictures of their vacations and WOW it looked gorgeous. But I never like to travel somewhere without knowing the history. THis seems like the book to solve that dilemma!

  6. It sounds like a fascinating book, but how did she ever get 1,100 pages out of a six-week trip?

    My daughter went to Croatia and reported that it is beautiful.