Rebecca West, brilliant British novelist, journalist, literary critic, essayist, and more, had a long and successful career, but Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia is universally considered her masterpiece. Given my interest in the former Yugoslavia’s neighbor Bulgaria, I have begun to read it. Thankfully, there is a detailed index and much of interest about Bulgaria itself as well as much to compare and contrast with Yugoslavia. The paperback version is 1150 pages.
I’m not sure I’ll finish it. Not true, I’m sure I will not.
But the length of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, written in the late 1930s and published here in the United States in 1941, is not what I find difficult. I can complain about the stilted and pedantic dialogue, clearly making the people—real and composite—in this nonfiction narrative mere mouthpieces of the author. I can complain about the highly opinionated tilt of ostensibly objectively presented history. I can complain about the off-kilter and gratingly insistent sensibility about what constitutes maleness and femaleness, and the relative importance of these in the narrative. But what really gets to me is the balkanization of the Balkans.
Dame West does a disservice by her ready reception of Europe’s tendency to categorize the continent’s peoples. Western vs. Eastern, Catholic vs. Orthodox, Austro-German vs. Slav, Serb vs. Bulgar. Page after page, we hear about such things as “the authentic voice of the Slav” and other gross generalizations. And she further emphasizes what is Serb or Croat or Macedonian or Montenegrin or… All this division, all this compartmentalization, may or may not reflect what her travels were showing her. With Hitler on the rise, perhaps the people she met had a heightened awareness of what divided, rather than what united, them. The writer is not herself intolerant, but the insistent message of regional fragmentation plays into the intolerance of the time and adds fertilizer to the soil that Slobodan Milošević tilled so well five decades later.
That being said, there are wonderful observations and very cogent analysis throughout. There is, after all, reason why Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is considered a classic and still relevant. Here she says of Zagreb in the 1930s something I feel of Sofia today:
“It has, moreover, the endearing characteristic, noticeable in many French towns, of remaining a small town when it is in fact quite large. A hundred and fifty thousand people live in Zagreb, but from the way gossips stand in the street it is plain that everybody knows who is going to have a baby and when. This is a lovely spiritual victory over urbanization.”
In a more somber vein, West names the Achilles heel of the region:
“That is very true of all disputes between the Serbs and the Bulgars that are based on historical grounds. Both parties, and this applies not to old professors but to the man in the streets, start with the preposterous idea that when the Turks were driven out of the Balkans the frontiers recognized when they came in should be re-established, in spite of the lapse of five centuries, and then they are not loyal to it. The frontiers demanded by the extremists on both sides are those which their peoples touched only at moments of their greatest expansion, and they had to be withdrawn afterwards because they could not be properly defended. The ideal Bulgaria which the Bulgarians lust for, and nearly obtained through the Russian-drafted Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, actually existed only during the lifetimes of the Tsar Simeon, who died in the tenth century, and of the Tsar Samuel, who died about a hundred years later. The Serbs are as irritating when they regard their Tsar Dushan not only as an inspiration but as a map-maker, for his empire had fallen to pieces in the thirty-five years between his death and the defeat at Kossovo.”
This was written before World War II, before Communism triumphed, and before Communism fell. It is notable that the Yugoslavians continued to be “irritating” until the irritation grew to such lethal proportions that the country fell apart in the most bloody and horrific of ways and now lies in pieces in a European community those pieces cannot yet fully manage to join. Bulgaria somehow moved on, disputing no borders, making no additional territorial claims officially, its people clamoring for no changes nor hearkening back to empires of the past. Bulgarian textbooks do not teach children about “the Turkish yoke,” but of the Ottoman Empire. Bulgarian politicians of any impact—right, left, and center—generally support Bulgaria’s place in the European Union, looking forward and not back.
Rebecca West died in 1983, just three years after Yugoslavian President for life Josip Broz Tito. Had she lived another decade or two, she might have put on her journalist or essayist hat and revisited those Serbs and Bulgars. I would read that in its entirety with great interest.