Friday, January 15, 2010

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Pardon me if I do a little bragging here, but I would just like to announce that I've now finished reading a really long book: Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

How long a book is it? My single-volume edition is 1150 pages.

What makes the book so long? The book is a record of the author's six-week journey through much of Yugoslavia in 1937, including her reflections on everybody she met and everything she saw, and just about everything that popped into her head--with lots of historical background. What preoccupied West most during her travels--and what drew her attention to the Balkans in the first place--was the political situation in Europe. West could sense a new world war in the offing, and was writing to warn her British audience of the imminent threat from the Nazis and Fascists. The danger posed by Germany and Italy colors much of her account. For instance, many reviewers have remarked on her nearly pathological hatred of everything German, Austrian, or Italian. She does not encounter a single good German in the book, except for some of the (dead) classic German authors and composers. This bias is understandable, given the time when she was writing, but does become tiresome after a while (especially for a Germanophile like myself). This bias perhaps also explains why she does not bother visiting Slovenia--that region of the former Yugoslavia was the closest geographically and culturally to Austria and Italy.

Moreover, her love of everything Serbian seems misguided in light of the civil war in the 1990's, though again it is understandable, given that at the time a strong Kingdom of Yugoslavia under the direction of the Serbs might have slowed down Hitler and Mussolini. The best characters in the book are Serbs, but she also seems blind to the faults of individual Serbs. Did Gavrilo Princip's assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand cause problems? Of course, World War I was a disaster! West nevertheless writes in glowing terms of the young terrorist, even lamenting the poor treatment he received in prison (the Austrians did not execute him because he was under 21). West also seems to be in constant search of the "Slavic essence," which she finds in the proud, indomitable, yet mystical Serbs.

The root of these skewed views is most likely her basically Romantic outlook. The quest for national and ethnic "essences" seems quintessentially Romantic. However, one would think that some German Romantics' obsession with "authentic Germanness" would have cured West of this sloppy habit of thought. She further reveals her Romantic attitudes in her "orientalist" treatment of the Turks. Her description of the savage, yet sensuous and urbane Turks sounds like it came straight out of 1,001 Nights. Finally, she focuses--like a good Romantic--on the "magical" element in religion. I nearly put the book down during the chapters devoted to Ohrid, when she kept using the word "magic" to describe the liturgy in Serbian Orthodox monasteries (picture right).

Besides tracing some of the ethnic tensions at work in pre-war Yugoslavia, West also sought to trace the underlying spiritual causes of the European crisis between the world wars, which she locates in the black lamb and grey falcon of the title. (I was more than 800 pages into the book before I found out what the black lamb referred to, and more than 900 pages in before I came across the poem about the grey falcon.) Europeans of all religions and ethnic groups--Christians, Jews, and Muslims; Serbs, Croats, Gypsies, and Albanians--are obsessed with death, and trying to bring good out of death, especially through bloody sacrifice. She even alleges that the Christian doctrine out of the Atonement is a result of this misguided urge. Her case is not convincing, and comes across as a confused, quasi-Freudian analysis of Thanatos.

But, here is the real question: Given all the book's flaws, why did I insist on finishing it? Am I just a glutton for punishment? First, West is a wonderful writer, with a true talent for description. For example, she meets a landlady in Montenegro who is a rather stern, majestic widow, and remarks that the landlady's husband seemed "specially dead." Second, despite all the disagreements I had with her, I must admit that West often raises good questions. She may not be answering these questions correctly, but at least she is asking them. In a way, she reminds me of Faust, who must err as long as she keeps striving, and is therefore saved in the critic's eyes. Finally, this is a travel book, and a good travel book is a lot of fun. This book let me imagine that I was taking a six-week journey (because that's the time it takes to finish the book) with a friendly, intelligent author, and discussing politics, history, and culture with her. Any travel book that can achieve that is worth reading.
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