More than a decade ago, at the height of the Balkan wars of the 1990s that succeeded the disintegration or “fall” or “destruction” of Yugoslavia (and so much then hung upon which of the preceding terms one chose to employ for that bloody catastrophe), I returned from a voyage to Macedonia to attend a meeting for Yugoslav democrats at the Cooper Union in New York City. Here I was, under the roof where Abraham Lincoln himself had spoken of union and of the consequences of disunion, and I remember the shiver with which I stood on the same podium to give my own little speech. At a bookstall, I picked up a copy of Ivo Andric’s classic The Bridge on the Drina, and a few other texts I had read or desired to reread, and then hesitated over the book that you now hold in your hands.

I know, in other words, what you may be thinking: more than eleven hundred pages of densely wrought text, concerning what Neville Chamberlain once called, in the same context but another reference, “a faraway country of which we know nothing.” Not just far away in point of distance, either, but remote in point of time and period: a country that no longer exists, an Atlantis of the mind. (On page 773 of the edition I picked up, West resignedly and pessimistically alludes to “this book, which hardly anyone will read by reason of its length.”) The action of buying it seemed almost antiquarian: like laying out money for the purchase of a large anachronistic device. Nevertheless, having learned from other readings to respect the mind of Rebecca West, I decided on the outlay and have been regarding it as a great bargain ever since.

Imagine that you have, in fact, purchased at least four fine books for the price of one: The first and most ostensible of these volumes is one of the great travel narratives of our time, which seeks to net and analyze one of the most gorgeous and various of ancient and modern societies. The second volume gives an account of the mentality and philosophy of a superbly intelligent woman, whose feminism was above all concerned with the respect for, and the preservation of, true masculinity. The third volume transports any thoughtful or historically minded reader into the vertiginous period between the two World Wars: a time when those with intellectual fortitude could face the fact that the next war would be even more terrible than the last, and who did not flinch from that knowledge. The fourth volume is a meditation on the never-ending strife between the secular and the numinous, the faithful and the skeptical, the sacred and the profane.

The woman who brought off this signal polymathic achievement, based on three separate but interwoven visits to the Balkans and published just as the Second World War was disclosing itself as a conflict of ultimate horror, was born Cicely Fairfield in 1892. She demonstrated early brilliance as a reviewer and journalist, soon adopting the name Rebecca West (the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm). Her first published book, a study of Henry James, was issued in 1916 and her first novel, The Return of the Soldier, in 1918. She was thus ideally positioned, in point of age and precocity, to take a hand in the journalistic and critical ferment that followed the Great War. Although inclined to experiment and to the eclectic—she published articles in Wyndham Lewis’s vorticist magazine BLAST in addition to Ford Madox Ford’s English Review—she was no intellectual butterfly and, after a brief flirtation with Garsington and Bloomsbury and the world of Virginia Woolf and Ottoline Morrell, found her natural intellectual home on the freethinking liberal left. She was on terms with George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell while barely out of her teens and continued this pattern by conducting a long “older man” affair with H. G. Wells, by whom she soon had a son, Anthony. Her relationships with men were always to be passionate and distraught and full of misery and infidelity (and they included a fling with Lord Beaverbrook, the power-crazy newspaper tycoon who is the original of Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop). She managed a long marriage to an English banker (“my husband,” otherwise never named, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon ), but even while in Yugoslavia with him, as her letters and diaries reveal, she was racked with anxiety about another lover. One has, from most accounts of her very long and tempestuous life, the sense of a brilliant and ambitious but unhappy woman, deeply intellectual and much preoccupied with public affairs, who had to strive extremely hard in a man’s world and who found men both essential and impossible. There is an evocative description of her by Virginia Woolf, who wrote that “she has great vitality: is a broad-browed, very vigorous, distinguished woman, but a buf feter and a battler: has taken the waves, I suppose, and can talk in any language: why then this sense of her being a lit up modern block, floodlit by electricity?”

“Block,” there, may be somewhat unflattering—though for Mrs. Woolf to instance “the waves” is obviously a mark of respect—but “lit up” though West may have seemed, she was also frequently plunged in darkness. Indeed, nothing better conveys her sense of mingled urgency, responsibility, and pessimism than the way in which she describes the onset of her profound engagement with Yugoslavia. Recovering from surgery in a hospital ward in England in October 1934, she hears a radio announcement of the assassination of King Alexander and appreciates at once that a grand crisis is in the making. Like any intelligent European of that date, she experiences a natural frisson at the murder of a crowned head of the Balkans, but she is also aware that the political class in her country is not much less myopic than it was at the time of Sarajevo, only twenty years earlier. She feels at once helpless and ignorant, and culpable in both these aspects. To know nothing about the Balkans is, she reflects, to “know nothing about my own destiny.” At this time, Naomi Mitchison is writing about the bloody events in Vienna that will lead to the Anschluss, and others are experiencing the premonition of impending confrontation in Spain, but for West it is Yugoslavia that is the potentially seismic country.

In considering her book, then, we must try to envisage that now-obliterated nation as she did. This is to say, we must begin by looking at it through the reverse end of the telescope. The murder of King Alexander puts her in mind, successively but not in order, of the assassination of Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 (which had much discomposed her own mother), of the fervor of the schismatic Donatists of the fourth century, of the cruel butchery of King Alexander Obrenovi of Serbia, together with his wife, Queen Draga, in the royal palace in Belgrade in 1903, and finally of the cataclysmic shooting of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort in the capital of Bosnia in June 1914. Of this event, West notes ruefully that at the time she was too much absorbed in her own private concerns to pay the necessary attention. We know that West was a strong admirer of Marcel Proust and believed him to be one of the originators of modernism, and Janet Montefiore, one of the most deft and penetrating students of her work, is surely right in describing this bedridden moment of connected recollection as a Proustian “layering.”

Indeed, and without getting too much ahead of our story, the “madeleine” of 28 June 1914, in particular, prompts memories in many more minds than that of Rebecca West. It was on that same day in 1389—St. Vitus’s Day-that the Serbian armies of Prince Lazar had known the bitterness of utter vanquishment at the hands of the Turks on the Field of Kosovo: a permanent wound in the national heart that was to be cynically reopened by an anniversary speech given by Slobodan Miloševi on the very same date in 1989. For West in 1934, it seemed more simply that “when I came to look back upon it my life had been punctuated by the slaughter of royalties, by the shouting of newsboys who have run down the streets to tell me that someone has used a lethal weapon to turn over a new leaf in the book of history.”

I shall have to do some interleaving and “layering” myself, in distinguishing and also separating these four books: unschooled as she was, Rebecca West decided at once that the slaying of King Alexander was the work, at least by proxy, of the thuggish and covetous regime of Benito Mussolini. In the first few pages of the book, she offers an angry but mordant psychological profile of the mentality of Italian fascism, and of its Croatian and Macedonian clients:

This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity. The long servitude in the slums has left this kind of barbarian without any knowledge of what man does when he ceases to be violent, except for a few uncomprehending glimpses of material prosperity.... This aggressiveness leads obviously to the establishment of immense armed forces, and furtively to incessant experimentation with methods of injuring the outer world other than the traditional procedure of warfare.

The above passage can be taken as representative of many others in which West combines a near-patrician contempt for the baseness of fascism with her own political radicalism and her keen insight into motive. That this latter insight is essentially feminist is proved repeatedly by her choice of words and examples. Of the martyred Empress Elizabeth, for example, she writes that she

could not reconcile herself to a certain paradox which often appears in the lives of very feminine women. She knew that certain virtues are understood to be desirable in women: beauty, tenderness, grace, house-pride, the power to bear and rear children. She believed that she possessed some of these virtues and that her husband loved her for it. Indeed, he seemed to have given definite proof that he loved her by marrying her against the will of his mother, the Archduchess Sophie.

Against this latter woman West deploys a rhetorical skill that is perhaps too little associated with feminism: the ability to detect a pure bitch at twenty paces:

The Archduchess Sophie is a figure of universal significance. She was the kind of woman whom men respect for no other reason than that she is lethal, whom a male committee will appoint to the post of hospital matron. She had none of the womanly virtues. Especially did she lack tenderness.... She was also a great slut.

Incautious would be the man, but still more the woman, who incurred the fine wrath of Rebecca West. Her ability to appraise historical and global figures as if she had recently been personally oppressed or insulted by them was a great assistance in driving her narrative forward.

Speaking of narrative, she tells us very early on that her preferred analogy—her chosen means of connecting the past to the present—is that of “the sexual affairs of individuals”:

As we grow older and see the ends of stories as well as their beginnings, we realize that to the people who take part in them it is almost of greater significance that they should be stories, that they should form a recognizable pattern, than that they should be happy or tragic. The men and women who are withered by their fates, who go down to death reluctantly but without noticeable regrets for life, are not those who have lost their mates prematurely or by perfidy, or who have lost battles or fallen from early promise in circumstances of public shame, but those who have been jilted or were the victims of impotent lovers, who have never been summoned to command or been given any opportunity for success or failure.

She speculates that this is “possibly true not only of individuals, but of nations,” and this hypothesis becomes, in fact, the organizing principle of the book. Two other recurring notes are likewise introduced early on: West makes the first of innumerable cross-references to England (throughout her travels she compares towns, landscapes, historical events, and individuals to their English counterparts, as if to provide a familiar handhold both to her readers and to herself) and asks, immediately following the passage above: “What would England be like if it had not its immense Valhalla of kings and heroes?”

She also, in discussing Russia’s influence on the region, shows a defensive but definite sympathy for the Soviet system. Having been an early critic of Bolshevism, and sympathizer of its leftist and feminist victims, she appears like many to have postponed this reckoning until the more imperative menace of fascism had been confronted. “Those who fear Bolshevist Russia because of its interventions in the affairs of other countries,” she wrote, “which are so insignificant that they have never been rewarded with success, forget that Tsarist Russia carried foreign intervention to a pitch that has never been equaled by any other power, except the modern Fascist states.” In this, she reflected some of the left-liberal mentality of her day, and there is no doubt that this bias inflects a good deal of her Yugoslav analysis. “There is no man in the world,” she wrote, “not even Stalin, who would claim to be able to correct in our own time the insane dispensation which pays the food-producer worst of all workers.” To diagnose in so few words a problem that is still with us requires skill, but to portray Joseph Stalin as a friend of the peasant would have been eyebrow-raising even in 1937. (Should we allow that, in that year, the “story” of Russian communism was after all a little nearer to its inception than its end?) At any rate, at the beginning of her journey, we can identify an ardent woman who manifested a nice paradoxical sympathy for the honor, bravery, and pageantry of the past, and for the apparently more modern ideas of socialism and self-determination. She had stepped onto the perfect soil for one so quixotic.

She never chances to employ the word, but Serbo-Croat speech has an expression that depends for its effect not on the sex lives of humans, but of animals. A vukojebina—employed to describe a remote or barren or arduous place—means literally a “wolf-fuck,” or more exactly the sort of place where wolves retire to copulate. This combination of a noble and fearless creature with an essential activity might well have appealed to her. The term—which could have been invented to summarize Milovan Djilas’s harsh and loving portrayal of his native Montenegro, Land Without Justice—is easily adapted to encapsulate a place that is generally, so to say, fucked up. This is the commonest impression of the Balkans now, as it was then, and West considered it her task to uncover and to praise the nobility and culture that contradicted this patronizing impression.

Assisting her in this purpose, and sometimes contradicting her as well, is the near-ubiquitous figure of “Constantine.” He is supposed to speak for all those who have resisted the long, rival tyrannies of Austro-Hungary and Turkey, and who are now trying to teach the discordant peoples of Yugoslavia to speak with one voice. One’s attitude to the book, and to West herself, depends to a very great extent on one’s view of Constantine. A composite based on a real person named Stanislas Vinaver, he is at once a government bureaucrat and “official guide,” a Serb, a Jew, a nationalist, and a cosmopolitan. To add to the jumble of this picture, he is also married to Gerda, a German woman of frightful aspect and demeanor who despises almost all foreigners—most especially Jews—and who is a clear prefiguration of a full-blown Nazi. (I happen to like Stanislas/Constantine. When dealing with an incensed young Bosnian who accused him of being a government stooge, he responds with some gravity by saying: “Yes. For the sake of my country, and perhaps a little for the sake of my soul, I have given up the deep peace of being in opposition.” This is one of the more profoundly mature, and also among the most tragic, of the signals that West’s ear was attuned to pick up.)

We meet Constantine early on, and we also encounter a method of Rebecca West’s that has given rise to much criticism. Her non-fictional characters are conscripted more as dramatis personae—Montefiore likens her to Thucydides—and given long speeches, even soliloquies, in which to represent sets of ideas and prejudices. This is a privilege extended not only to the people she meets: throughout the book both she and her husband make long and quite grammatical addresses that would be unthinkable in real life, if only because they would be interrupted if given in mixed company and walked out upon if they occurred at the domestic hearth. As a didactic tool, however, this has its uses in that people are permitted to be advocates and are given the room to make their case. (Paul Scott employs the same means in his historical fiction of the British Raj in India, often to great effect. The soliloquy is not to be despised as a means of elucidation.) The first use of it occurs when West and her husband are in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, and Constantine gets into fights and arguments with some local intellectuals who do not trust or respect the new national regime with its political headquarters in the Serbian capital of Belgrade. His rather emotional attempts to make them think and feel like “Slavs” are recorded sympathetically by West, but this is the stage at which we can first surmise that the Serbs will turn out to be her favorites.

Ambivalent as she was about Stalin, Rebecca West was acutely sensitive to the early warnings of fascism and very heartily repelled by all its manifestations. She identified it in the Yugoslav case with a general conspiracy by foreign powers to subvert and fragment the country (in which she was by no means mistaken), and she identified it in the Croatian case with the ambitions of the Vatican (in which she was not wrong, either). The world now knows about the Ustashe; the cruel and chauvinistic surrogate party that established a Nazi protectorate in Croatia, under military and clerical leadership, during the Second World War. West saw it coming, in the uniformed Catholic “youth movements” set up in Croatia in the 1930s, and in the persistent hostility of the Church to the Yugoslav idea in general, and to the allegiance of the Serbs to Eastern Orthodoxy in particular.

It deserves to be said that she tries to compensate for this partisanship by almost immediately writing a paean to Bishop Strossmayer, a Catholic Croatian eminence of the preceding century who had been genuinely humane and ecumenical, but it is also at this point that one can begin to notice her distaste for chiaroscuro. In describing Strossmayer’s life and habits and character, she supplies an almost devotional portrait of a man about whom she could have known only by hearsay. Of his supposed hospitality she writes: “After supper, at which the food and drink were again delicious, there were hours of conversation, exquisite in manner, stirring in matter.” This approaches the gushing.

A writer who falls in love with a new and strange country will always find experience heightened in this way. The dawns are more noble, the crags loftier, the people more genuine, the food and wine more luscious.... Here might be the point to try and explicate the lamb and the falcon of West’s title. About halfway through the narrative she is in Belgrade, and finding, as many lovers do, that her new inamorata is beginning to remind her just a little too much of her previous ones. The men in the hotel bar, and the hotel itself, are making Yugoslavia’s capital into an emulation of some imagined bourgeois ideal, replete with modern architecture and up-to-date ideas of businesslike cleverness. Soon, she begins to feel, the food will become indistinguishable as well. The hotel will “repudiate its good fat risottos, its stews would be guiltless of the spreading red oil of paprika.... I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia.... I had perhaps come a long way to see a sunset which was fading under my eyes before a night of dirty weather.” Disillusionment and banality menace her on every hand, and the false jollity at the bar is mounting to a crescendo, when

the hotel doors [swung] open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms ... He was a well-built young man with straight fair hair, high cheekbones, and a look of clear sight. His suit was in the Western fashion, but he wore also a sheepskin jacket, a round black cap, and leather sandals with upturned toes, and to his ready-made shirt his mother had added some embroidery.

It is as if an Englishman, raised on the romance of the Western and pining in a phony tourist saloon in Wyoming, were to see the saloon doors swing open and hear the jingle of true cowboy spurs....

He stood still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms, its eyes sometimes catching the light as it turned and shining like small luminous plates.

So there is still hope that traditional, genuine, rural society continues to pulse away, under the gaudy patina of commerce and affectation. However, the next time we encounter a black lamb we are in Macedonia almost four hundred pages further on, and this time West is not at all so sure that she likes what she sees. The Muslim peasants are converging on a large rock in an open field, and the rock is coated with coagulating blood and littered with animal body parts:

I noticed that the man who had been settling the child on the rug was now walking round the rock with a black lamb struggling in his arms. He was a young gypsy, of the kind called Gunpowder gypsies, because they used to collect saltpeter for the Turkish army, who are famous for their beauty, their cleanliness, their fine clothes. This young man had the features and bearing of an Indian prince, and a dark golden skin which was dull as if it had been powdered yet exhaled a soft light. His fine linen shirt was snow-white under his close-fitting jacket, his elegant breeches ended in soft leather boots, high to the knee, and he wore a round cap of fine fur.

Again, one notices West’s keen eye for the finely featured man and for his apparel. But this time, the ambience strikes her as brutish and disgusting—even alarming.

Now the man who was holding the lamb took it to the edge of the rock and drew a knife across its throat. A jet of blood spurted out and fell red and shining on the browner blood that had been shed before. The gypsy had caught some on his fingers, and with this he made a circle on the child’s forehead.... “He is doing this,” a bearded Muslim standing by explained, “because his wife got this child by coming here and giving a lamb, and all children that are got from the rock must be brought back and marked with the sign of the rock.” ... Under the opening glory of the morning the stench from the rock mounted more strongly and became sickening.

Sunset in Belgrade ... sunrise in Macedonia—and suddenly the evidence of “authenticity” seems to contradict itself. This is a difficulty that recurs to West throughout her explorations.

The grey falcon comes to her on another field of sacrifice: this time the plain of Kosovo on which Prince Lazar of Serbia saw his forces divided by betrayal and slaughtered by the Turks. An antique Serbian folk song, translated on the spot by Constantine, begins the story thus:

There flies a grey bird, a falcon, 

From Jerusalem the holy, 

And in his beak he bears a swallow.

That is no falcon, no grey bird, 

But it is the Saint Elijah ...

This sky-born messenger brings to Prince Lazar (or “Tsar Lazar,” as the poem has him) a choice between an earthly kingdom and a heavenly one: a choice that he decides in a way that West comes to find contemptible. Her two chosen images, therefore, are neither symmetrical nor antagonistic but, rather, contain their own contradictions. It is important to know at the start what she registers throughout and at the conclusion: that feeling that some English people have always had for a patriotism other than their own. Byron in Greece had a comparable experience, of simultaneous exaltation and disillusionment, and even as West was making her way through the Balkans, English volunteers in Spain were uttering slogans about Madrid and Barcelona that they would have felt embarrassed to hear themselves echo for London or Manchester. Many of them were to return disappointed, too.

“The enormous condescension of posterity” was the magnificent phrase employed by E. P. Thompson to remind us that we must never belittle the past popular struggles and victories (as well as defeats) that we are inclined to take for granted. Two things are invariably present in Rebecca West’s mind and, thanks to the lapse of time, not always available to our own. The first of these is the realization that an incident in Sarajevo in June 1914 had irrevocably splintered the comfortable and civilized English world of which she had a real memory. When she says “The Great War,” she means the war of 1914-1918 because, though she can see a second war coming, there has as yet been no naming of the “First” World War. The next is her constant awareness that men decide and that women then live, or die, with the consequences of that decision making. The first assault on the Yugoslav idea had been made by the hairless demagogic Italian poet Gabriele D‘Annunzio—the man who borrowed the phrase “the year of living dangerously” from Nietzsche, though West did not know this—and who had led the wresting of Trieste and Fiume from Yugoslav sovereignty in 1920. This piece of theater and bombast was the precursor to Mussolini’s March on Rome, and caused West to reflect:

All this is embittering history for a woman to contemplate. I will believe that the battle of feminism is over, and that the female has reached a position of equality with the male, when I hear that a country has allowed itself to be turned upside-down and led to the brink of war by a totally bald woman writer.

Useless for a male critic to interpose that Joan of Arc apparently had a full head of hair, or that Dolores Ibárruri (“La Pasion aria”) was even then making strong men shed hot tears for the ideals of Joseph Stalin—or that neither of these ladies was a writer or poet in the accepted sense. One simply sees what she means.

And, very often, one has exactly no choice but to see what she means, and to respect her intuitions as well as her better-reasoned insights. Her intuitions and generalizations are offered in no niggardly spirit and make no attempt to disguise themselves as objective let alone impartial. After a sweep along the Adriatic, with some animadversions about the decay and enfeeblement of the Venetian Empire, she stops at the island of Rab and declares

these people of Dalmatia gave the bread out of their mouths to save us of Western Europe from Islam, and it is ironical that so successfully did they protect us that those among us who would be broad-minded, who will in pursuit of that end stretch their minds until they fall apart in idiocy, would blithely tell us that perhaps the Dalmatians need not have gone to that trouble, that an Islamized West could not have been worse than what we are today.... The West has done much that is ill, it is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist, but it has not known that death in life which was suffered by the Christian provinces under the Ottoman Empire.

An unintended element of posterity’s condescension may be apparent at the close of this passage, where West writes, “Impotent and embarrassed, I stood on the high mountain and looked down on the terraced island where my saviors, small and black as ants, ran here and there, attempting to repair their destiny.”

The difficulty, in crediting any group or state with delivering Europe from the Turks or from Islam, is that there are too many rival claimants for that honor and distinction. Austrians and Poles can boast of having defended the gates of Vienna; Venetians and Maltese to have hung on until the victory at Lepanto; Hungarians and Greeks to have fought to the last against Ottomanism. In Rebecca West’s own lifetime, the Sublime Porte in Constantinople had staked everything on a declaration of jihad against the British Empire and on the side of the German one in 1914, and had ended up not just losing the war but its caliphate as well. She was always somewhat ambivalent about the British Empire, reserving the right both to admire it and to criticize it, but toward most of the other empires and nations I have just mentioned she was generally hostile. And this was because of her feeling that they had all, at different times, betrayed the people of the Balkans, most especially the people of Serbia.

It was not, after all, the arrogant Turks who had issued an ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914 (though Turkey was to take the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany in the ensuing combat). Yet perhaps the most sustainedly brilliant passage in the entire book is her reconstruction of the events that led up to, and away from, the assassination of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand. When one scans these pages, one must continually bear in mind that for her, as for most educated English people, the events of 28 June 1914 were the moral and emotional equivalent of 11 September 2001, the terrible date on which everything had suddenly changed for the worse. I cannot possibly hope to summarize the intensity and scope of her effort in this regard. In its awareness of the grand consequences of the event, it manifests an almost vibrant sense of history and drama. In its minute attention to detail, it rivals some of the more obsessive and forensic retracings of what happened in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, on 22 November 1963 (and shares with some of those studies a subliminal but unmistakable wish that the newsreel could be run again, and one turn of the car avoided or one wretched coincidence averted, so that the fatal bullet would not meet its target after all).

A little too much time and ink, perhaps, is expended in “proving” that the Austro-Hungarian staff must have at least covertly wished for the archduke to have been shot. For these frigid and cynical men, a mild heir with an embarrassing wife was thereby removed and an ideal provocation for war simultaneously furnished. It could well have been so. Certainly, the pro-war forces in Vienna seemed a little more than ready for the excuse that was offered them, and hastened to force conditions on Serbia that they knew were both unjust and unacceptable. However, as West fails to mention, the socialist faction in the outraged Serbian parliament, led by Dimitrije Tucovic, nonetheless refused to vote even for a war of “self-defense.” This was partly because of what they had seen of Serbian atrocities against Albanians and others in the Balkan War of 1912. These men were the equivalents of Jean Jau res and Rosa Luxemburg in their own country: how disappointing that West’s evident sympathy for Marxist internationalism should have deserted her just when it might have done her some good.

There is another marvelous passage, also derived from her stay in Sarajevo, which is this time an eye-witness description, and which actually can be summarized by quotation. She chanced to be in the city on the day of a state visit from the Turkish prime minister Ismet Inönü: the first such courtesy call since the conclusion of hostilities in 1918 and the proclamation by Kemal Atatürk of a secular republic in place of the caliphate. The large Muslim middle class of the city turned out in force, the bearded men donning fezes and the women wearing veils, and some hardy souls even bearing the old green flag with the crescent emblazoned upon it. Their consternation, on seeing clean-shaven high Turkish officials wearing Western suits and bowler hats, was palpable. Even worse was the shock they endured on hearing the speeches of Inönü’s delegation, as translated from Turkish by the Yugoslav minister of war. The distinguished visitors from Ankara

stood still, their eyes set on the nearest roof, high enough to save them the sight of this monstrous retrograde profusion of fezes and veils, of red pates and black muzzles, while the General put back into Serbian their all too reasonable remarks. They had told the Muslims of Sarajevo, it seemed, that they felt the utmost enthusiasm for the Yugoslavian idea, and had pointed out that if the South Slavs did not form a unified state the will of the great powers could sweep over the Balkan peninsula as it chose. They had said not one word of the ancient tie that linked the Bosnian Muslims to the Turks, nor had they made any reference to Islam.

The crowd dispersed, West recorded: “Slowly and silently, as those who have been sent empty away. We had seen the end of a story that had taken five hundred years to tell. We had seen the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Under our eyes it had heeled over and fallen to the ground like a clay figure slipping off a chair.” Once again, one is forced to note her innate prejudice in favor of the traditional and (somehow, therefore) the more “authentic,” even if this involves a preference for the fez over the standard bowler hat and thus a slight revision of what has been said earlier about Ottoman slavery and torpor. Perhaps, as for Si mone Weil, West’s definition of justice was that of “a refugee from the camp of victory.” If the corollary of this was to hold, and the defeated were to enjoy a closer natural relationship with justice, then much of her Serb-enthusiasm is, at least at that date, fairly easily explicable as well.

In any event, anybody with the least sympathy for the Balkan underdogs would by then have been recruited to their side, with a high degree of militancy, by the extraordinary above-mentioned figure of Gerda. It is never explained how this appalling philistine German female—a character from whom Christopher Isher wood’s ghastly Berlin landlady would have been a distinct relief—can possibly have married the Jewish intellectual Constantine (their true names were actually Stanislas and Elsa Vinaver), but married they are. And their grotesque partnership provides an ideal element of the farcical and the sinister, both increasing and lightening the solemn load that West and her husband must carry on their very serious trip. Gerda’s presence is a torture to Constantine and a perpetual embarrassment to his English guests, but it affords some useful comic relief as well as a Bob Fosse-like premonition of the nature of the “new Germany.” Informed at one point that the Wendish minority in Germany is in fact Slavic, she demands of West to be informed:

“If all the Wends are Slavs, why do we not send them out of Germany into the Slav countries, and give the land that they are taking up to true Germans?” “Then the Slavs,” I said, “might begin to think about sending back into Germany all the German colonists that live in places like Franzstal.” “Why, so they might,” said Gerda, looking miserable, since an obstacle had arisen in the way of her plan of making Europe clean and pure and Germanic by coercion and expulsion. She said in Serbian to her husband, “How this woman lacks tact.” “I know, my dear,” he answered gently, “but do not mind it, enjoy the scenery.”

Gerda, then, as well as the gelder of her husband, is a racist both pure and simple, an “ethnic cleanser” avant de la lettre, and she is one of those Teutonic types who cannot forgive—who can in a way not even believe—the defeat and humiliation of her country in 1918. That a crew of worthless Slavs were among the apparent “victors” is to her an offense against nature. “Think of all these people dying for a lot of Slavs,” as she puts it on visiting the French war cemetery. The local food disgusts her: when handed a dish at a picnic, “her face crumpled up with a hatred too irrational to find words.” Most of the people West meets and likes in Sarajevo are Jewish, and she suddenly comes to understand that this is why Gerda has no time for them. Like most English liberals and radicals of that period, West was only too conscious of the injustices imposed upon Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, and at one point goes out of her way to remind us that “Gerda is, of course, not characteristically German,” but her husband is less tender minded and reduces the matter to the paradoxical statement that “nobody who is not like Gerda can imagine how bad Gerda is.” (He often supplies quite shrewd and gnomic remarks: noticing that a shrine to the Karageorgevic dynasty is strictly Serbo-Byzantine in style and like most shrines is built “all on strictly Serb territory,” he adds that “this building with its enormously costly mosaics can mean nothing whatsoever to any Croatians or Dalmatians or Slovenes. Yet it is the mausoleum of their King, and superbly appropriate to him. I see that though Yugoslavia is a necessity it is not a predestined harmony.” This terse observation is worth more than many of West’s own hyper-romantic excursions into the quasi-mythical history of Serbian royalty.)

A considerable and almost purple chapter of such romance and mythmaking follows almost at once, as West visits the monastery at Vrdnik, where lies the coffin of Prince Lazar, the martyr of Kosovo. “There is no need to manufacture magic here,” she writes, before proceeding to do just that:

When this man met defeat it was not only he whose will was frustrated, it was a whole people, a whole faith, a wide movement of the human spirit. This is told by the splendid rings on the Tsar Lazar’s black and leathery hands; and the refinement of the pomp which presents him in his death, the beauty and gravity of the enfolding ritual, show the worth of what was destroyed with him. I put out a finger and stroked those hard dry hands, that had been nerveless for five hundred years.

To admire Rebecca West is to admire the toughness of her mind and the steadiness of her gaze: it is a little dispiriting to see her committing such an evident non sequitur between the first and second of her opening sentences, and a little more than dispiriting to see her caressing a relic like any silly old woman hoping for a cure for the scrofula.

She commits a more serious contradiction a little further along, this time after appearing to take at their face value the mad prophecies of a Serbian Nostradamus named Mata of Krema. In reprobating a later Serbian dynasty—the Obrenovi line, of Miloš and Milan—she first blames King Milan for allowing the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878, which gave almost the whole of Macedonia to Bulgaria, and then denounces the later Congress of Berlin, which undid the injustice she complains of, as “called for no other reason than to frame a treaty which should deprive the democratic Slavs of their freedom and thrust them into subjection under the imperialism of Turkey and Austria-Hungary.” That sequence already seems somewhat disordered, but then it is followed by this sentence:

It is not to be wondered at that in 1881 Milan signed a secret convention with Austria which handed over his country to be an Austrian dependency.

On the contrary, if any of West’s foregoing assumptions are sound, this action seems almost incomprehensible (as does her earlier use of the term “democratic”). She is beginning to regard Serbia as a country that, even if unable to do anything right, can yet never be said to be in the wrong. And again we encounter her preference, at least on first meeting, for anything that is raw and elemental over anything that is tame or domesticated:

Men like Miyatovich [King Milan’s favorite foreign minister, by the by] wanted the Serbians to lay aside this grandiose subject matter which their destiny had given them for their genius to work upon; and instead they offered them, as an alternative, to be clean and briskly bureaucratic and capitalist like the West. It was as if the Mayflower and Red Indians and George Washington and the pioneer West were taken from the United States, and there was nothing left but the Bronx and Park Avenue. [My italics.]

Before long, this admiration for the atavistic has led her to describe the vile Balkan War of 1912 as a “poem,” and to write that “there has been no fighting in our time that has had the romantic quality” of that conflict. (A useful corrective to this nonsense can be found in the Carnegie Endowment’s contemporary report on the war, and in Leon Trotsky’s firsthand reports of Serbian atrocities as printed in liberal Russian newspapers.)

Thus, at the almost exact midpoint of the book, West has arrived at a stage where she approves of King Alexander Kara georgevićs, who had hoped at the beginning of the First World War

not for a Yugoslavia, not for a union of all South Slavs, but for a Greater Serbia that should add to the Kingdom of Serbia all of the Austro-Hungarian territories in which the majority of the inhabitants were Serbs, that is Slavs who were members of the Orthodox Church. The school of thought to which he belonged rightly considered the difference between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches so great that it transcended racial or linguistic unity. It cannot be doubted that this Greater Serbia would have been a far more convenient entity than Yugoslavia.[My italics.]

Something very like the blindness of love must again be involved here: West quite fails to see that her ideal Greater Serbia program is open to precisely the same objections as Gerda’s fantasy of a pure Germany that adjusts the populations of its neighbors to suit itself. Moreover, it is with a note of unmistakable rue that she notes the thwarting of King Alexander’s dream, which depended for its success on the continued survival of Russian tsarism. This from the woman who credited Stalin’s agricultural reforms and who has, only a few pages before this, used the term “Soviet” in a wholly positive sense.

I risk mentioning the blindness of love again because, in her assessment of Alexander’s pro-tsarist policy, she makes mention of his wish to marry one of the tsar’s daughters and asserts that “it is beyond doubt that this was for Alexander a real affair of the heart. He did not merely want to be the husband of one of the tsar’s daughters. He wanted to have this particular daughter as his wife.” Now, West does not even trouble to specify which Ro manov daughter this was. (We are told only that she was a schoolgirl when Alexander met her.) And we are asked not only to overlook the self-evident interest of kingly statecraft in the matrimonial alliance, but to believe something that West cannot possibly have known herself. This is not history. It is not even journalism. It is passion.

As it happens, we know from Rebecca West’s diaries of her trip (which were sequestered in the Beinecke Library at Yale, with instructions that they were not to be made available until after the death of her husband and her son) that she was highly distraught during her Balkan voyages. She had been unwell and in some pain since her operation (for a hysterectomy) in 1934, and she was also recovering from an unhappy affair with an English surgeon named Thomas Kilner, whom she describes with mingled disgust and desire as “that horrible cheating sadistic little creature.” With Henry Andrews, her husband, she did have very occasional sexual relations on the journey, but these are usually written up as unsuccessful or unexciting. With Constantine (Stanislav Vinaver) she was necessarily uneasy, since on her previous solo trip he had attempted to possess her by force, if not actually to rape her. I dislike venturing even one step onto the territory of the psycho-historian, but some of her diary entries do seem to warrant a comparison with the finished book, and for one reason in particular: She tends to experience her few moments of repose or reflection when in churches or when visiting tombs, or at holy sites where the simple folk come for healing.

Thus we have a woman of powerful mind, recently sterilized at the difficult age of forty-two. It may be significant that her only allusion to her beloved Proust is to a passage where he reflects on how with age one’s body ceases to be oneself and turns into an enemy. She is dissatisfied for discrepant reasons with all the men in her life. (The few references to H. G. Wells in the book proper, which usually take the form of comments on his work by Yugoslavs who do not know of her connection to him, are almost invariably of a rather belittling kind.) Nonetheless, she can be funny about men (Macedonian Albanians have trousers that are always on the point of falling down, “and to make matters psychologically worse they are of white or biscuit homespun heavily embroidered in black wool in designs that make a stately reference to the essential points of male anatomy. The occasion could not seem more grave, especially as there is often a bunch of uncontrolled shirt bulging between the waistcoat and these trousers. Nothing, however, happens.”) And though she is angry at the abysmal treatment of Balkan womanhood—in Kosovo she writes a few paragraphs of controlled rage at the sight of an old peasant walking free while his wife carries a heavy iron-bladed plow—she can be tender about the male as well. When females become emancipated:

The young woman and the young man dash together out of adolescence into married life like a couple of colts. But presently the woman looks round and sees that the man is not with her. He is some considerable distance behind her, not feeling very well. There has been drained from him the strength which his forefathers derived from the subjection of women; and the woman is amazed, because tradition has taught her that to be a man is to be strong. There is no known remedy for this disharmony.

Perhaps suggestively, she several times resorts to the term “lechery,” and the then contemporary slang “letch,” to explain hidden motivations. An old abbot in Macedonia is given high marks for his “lechery for life,” in view of his continued survival “in a country where death devoured that which most deserved to live,” while on the aforementioned field of animal sacrifices West detects “a letch for cruelty.” The dialectic between Eros and Thanatos is continuous in these pages, as it was in their author’s conscious and unconscious mind. The most repeatedly pejorative word in her lexicon is “impotent,” as the reader will by now have spotted. Her detestation of homosexual or effeminate men is often vented.

I do not think it is any great exaggeration to say that, by the end of her travels, West had come to identify the Serbs with the nobler element of the masculine principle: those who were the least affected by hysteria and masochism and sickly introspection, those whose tradition made the least apologetic appeal to sacrifice and the martial virtues, and those who would be least inclined to let an invader warm his hands at their hearth. This conclusion was not reached without a number of ambiguities, not to mention excursions and digressions from the main path, but it led there in the end. Given the mind-concentrating prospect of imminent war with Nazi Germany, West sometimes remembered that she was a twentieth-century socialist and feminist, who had had, probably at one point, high hopes for the League of Nations. Two hundred pages after her lucubrations about “Greater Serbia” and its dubious dynasties, and before she has quite done with a long encomium to the Serb leader Stephen Dušan, who might or might not have contrived to restore the glory of Byzantium, she turns Fabian again and makes what amounts to a straightforward policy statement:

The Serbs are ... 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 Kosovo. The only considerations which should determine the drawing of Balkan frontiers are the rights of the peoples to self-government and the modifications of that right to which they must submit in order to keep the peninsula as a whole free from the banditry of the great powers. [My italics.]

Change “self-government” to “self-determination” in the above, and it is the voice of the principled bluestocking, come back to address the girls at her old school on the need for world order and punctilious diplomacy. The word “irritating” is especially well chosen for this effect.

However, the old world of commingled chivalry and superstition still exerts its hold on her and compels her to share what she has learned with those comfortable readers at home to whom politics is still a matter of party and welfare rather than warfare and sacrifice. And this desire produces two connected set pieces of extreme power. Recall the blood of the black lamb, spurting out to create fertility for the barren and ground-down Muslim women of Macedonia. In this primitive ritual, West does not at first wish to see the parallel with Christian doctrines of the atonement, or rather, of vicarious atonement by means of which a scapegoat can be gutted or sacrificed for the greater good of the tribe. But the sense of smell is an acute prompter, and the sheer reek and stench of that Sheep’s Field, clotted with drying blood and dismembered carcasses, provokes in her a profound nausea:

The rite of the Sheep’s Field was purely shameful. It was a huge and dirty lie.... Its rite, under various disguises, had been recommended to me since my infancy by various religious bodies, by Roman Catholicism, by Anglicanism, by Methodism, by the Salvation Army. Since its earliest days Christianity has been compelled to seem its opposite. This stone, the knife, the filth, the blood, is what many people desire beyond anything else, and they fight to obtain it.

If the grisly sacrifice of cocks and lambs, and the nasty blend of gore and grease, make her gag at the paganism and stupidity of millennial custom, this is nothing to the shock she experiences on the field of Kosovo, consecrated to the apparently willing and glorious self-sacrifice of human beings determined to uphold a great cause. As she approaches the center of the landscape, she is informed that it is often red with poppies to symbolize the fallen Serbian martyrs, and I find it odd that she does not observe any connection with the celebrated poppies of Flanders and Picardy, emblematic as these are of a slaughter on the Somme that would have been all too fresh and vivid in her own mind. It is when she arrives at the heart of the place, and has the “grey falcon” poem explained to her, that she undergoes a shock that exceeds anything that has come before.

It is characteristically preceded by another piece of paradoxical generosity. West has been brought to Kosovo—Kosovo Polje, or “the Field of the Blackbirds”—to see the place where Turkish imperialism crushed the Serbs, and all her sympathies have been engaged on the Serbian side, but she takes care to visit the mausoleum of Sultan Murad, one of the Turkish leaders who also lost his life there, to note the sad decrepitude of Muslim life in the Prishtina district and to set down the following:

It is impossible to have visited Sarajevo or Bitolj or even Skopje, without learning that the Turks were in a real sense magnificent, that there was much of that in them which brings a man off his four feet into erectness, that they knew well that running waters, the shade of trees, a white minaret the more in a town, brocade and fine manners, have a usefulness greater than use, even to the most soldierly of men.

Once again, one notes the implicit compliment to virility.

And this helps set the stage for what follows. The poem about the grey falcon, as recited and adumbrated by Constantine and his more vigorous driver, Dragutin, reveals to West that when Lazar was offered the choice between a military victory and a sacrificial but holy defeat, he chose the latter. He summoned the bishops, administered the eucharist to his soldiers, and lost “seven and seventy thousand” of them. But nevertheless, as the poem concludes:

All was holy, all was honorable 

And the goodness of God was fulfilled.

This immediately strikes West as even more horrible than the blood sacrifice and pseudo-atonement of the Sheep’s Field. Behind its bravado there lurks an awful death wish and an equally despicable abjection and fatalism. “So that was what happened,” she says abruptly when the recitation is completed. “Lazar was a member of the Peace Pledge Union.”

Some context may be needed here: The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) was a British organization of the mid-1930s founded by a genial but simpleminded Anglican clergyman named Dick Shep pard. Membership involved a commitment not unlike the earlier Christian “pledge” to swear off alcohol: the signing of a statement that “I renounce all war and will never support or sanction another.” Enormous numbers of people signed this pledge and did much to influence the already craven attitude of the British establishment toward the rise of fascism. And in fact, naively pacifist though the membership of the PPU was, its leadership contained several people who either sympathized with German war aims or who did not think that such aims should be opposed by force. (In the course of the eventual Second World War, it would be extensively lampooned and denounced by George Orwell, who was incidentally a great admirer of Rebecca West’s writing.) Making the rather strained analogy between Kosovo in 1389 and Europe in 1938, West decides that “this poem shows that the pacifist attitude does not depend on the horrors of warfare, for it never mentions them. It goes straight to the heart of the matter and betrays that what the pacifist really wants is to be defeated.” [My italics.]

She reflects on the “anti-war” meetings that she has attended back home and echoes Orwell’s famous attack on the vegetarians, fruit-juice drinkers, sandal wearers, “escaped Quakers,” and other radical cranks by remarking on the eccentric dress of the women at these events and the love of impotence that is evident there:

The speakers use all accents of sincerity and sweetness, and they continuously praise virtue; but they never speak as if power would be theirs tomorrow and they would use it for virtuous action. And their audiences also do not seem to regard themselves as predestined to rule; they clap as if in defiance, and laugh at their enemies behind their hands, with the shrill laughter of children. They want to be right, not to do right. They feel no obligation to be part of the main tide of life, and if that meant any degree of pollution they would prefer to divert themselves from it and form a standing pool of purity. In fact, they want to receive the Eucharist, be beaten by the Turks, and then go to heaven. [My italics.]

Amid these mocking but stern reflections on the attitudinizing and stagnancy of “the left-wing people among whom I had lived all my life,” she encounters an Albanian carrying yet another black lamb in his arms, and the threads are drawn together: “The black lamb and the grey falcon had worked together here. In this crime, as in nearly all historic crimes and most personal crimes, they had been accomplices”:

And I had sinned in the same way, I and my kind, the liberals of Western Europe. We had regarded ourselves as far holier than our Tory opponents because we had exchanged the role of priest for the role of lamb, and therefore we forgot that we were not performing the chief moral obligation of humanity, which is to protect the works of love. We have done nothing to save our people, who have some little freedom and therefore some power to make their souls, from the trampling hate of the other peoples who are without the faculty of freedom and desire to root out the soul like a weed. It is possible that we have betrayed life and love for more than five hundred years on a field wider than Kosovo, as wide as Europe.

Thus on this stricken field, far from the England that will so soon be in a death grapple with Hitler, West makes her own form of “atonement” for the “progressive” illusions that have consoled her up until then.

Only two more episodes remain before this theme—of an impending confrontation that cannot and must not be shirked—becomes dominant and then conclusive. She spends some time at a large mine run by one of those Scottish engineers who were the backbone and the vertebrae of British enterprise all over the Empire: one of those gruff and decent and honest men who make us utter expressions like “salt of the earth” (West was herself somewhat proud of her Scots-Irish provenance). Old Mac has brought efficiency and improvement to his remote part of Kosovo and has taught many of the locals to work together despite their linguistic and confessional differences. This is a sort of oasis of modernity and rationality, involving perhaps a slight nostalgia on West’s part for the ordered gardens and settled routines of her homeland, before the journey is resumed. It takes her through Montenegro and then back to the coast, and is unusually full of her sprightly observations and aperçus. (“She was one of those widows whose majesty makes their husbands especially dead.” ... “Like all Montenegrin automobiles, it was a debauched piece of ironmongery.”) It also features a very sobering moment at a war memorial. This is a black obelisk covered in names, and these turn out not to be the dead of an entire town, as seems probable, but only of one local clan. Moreover, the dates of the war are given as 1912-1921, which at first astonishes West until she remembers that this mountain people had been “continually under arms” for that length of time. That is a splendid microcosmic observation of Montenegrin history and character, and it is matched by a tremendous description of the Cserna Gora, or “Black Mountains,” which give this lovely and forbidding and unique statelet its imposing name. (Montenegro may have been the setting for Ruritanian-style operettas, but there has been little of courtly polish and affectation in its grim history, unless one counts the old capital of Cetinje, still preserved as if in aspic or amber with the pre-1914 charms that an Anthony Hope or a Franz Lehár might have found diverting.)

The closing passages of the book are defiant rather than fatalistic, sketching in the background of a picture that is steadily darkening. West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that “many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews. They know only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.” When her guide and friend Constantine moves from nervous illness to something more like a collapse, she records awkwardly that “I did not know how to say that he was dying of being a Jew in a world where there were certain ideas to which some new star was lending a strange strength,” and we feel chilled by the shadow of the encroaching swastika. Creepy old men in monasteries tell her that they look forward to receiving visits from eminent Nazis. Back on the seacoast she and her party notice, as in an Eric Ambler novel, German and Italian agents behaving with increasing confidence and arrogance. Mussolini is about to seize power in Albania, and his fascist proxies, according to Constantine, now “control the whole country; some day they will have their army there too, and it will be as a pistol pointed at Yugoslavia.” He shuddered violently and said, “Ils avancent toujours.” Before long, his worst anticipations are vindicated, and news is brought of a massacre of Albanian leftists that presages a full-fledged fascist coup. With this, West and her husband make ready to depart. But just before she comes to the end of her time in Yugoslavia, and is again contemplating the eclipse of the Turks while staring out of a window, she is visited by a kind of epiphany:

I said to myself, “My civilization must not die. It need not die. My national faith is valid, as the Ottoman faith was not. I know that the English are as unhealthy as lepers compared with perfect health. They do not give themselves up to feeling or to work as they should, they lack readiness to sacrifice their individual rights for the corporate good, they do not bid the right welcome to the other man’s soul. But they are on the side of life, they love justice, they hate violence, and they respect the truth. It is not always so when they deal with India or Burma; but that is not their fault, it is the fault of Empire, which makes a man own things outside his power to control. But among themselves, in dealing with things within their reach, they have learned some part of the Christian lesson that it is our disposition to crucify what is good, and that we must therefore circumvent our barbarity. This measure of wisdom makes it right that my civilization should not perish.”

This must count as one of the most halting and apologetic proclamations of patriotism ever uttered, yet it would be foolish to miss the power of its understatement.

Her way home took her through pre-Anschluss Vienna, recently the scene of a Nazi-inspired pogrom against the left and soon to become an enthusiastic place of self-abnegation that would give up even its nationality and throw itself eagerly at Hitler’s feet. This was in some sense a homecoming for the führer: as West points out (and who was it who said that Austria’s twin achievement was to have persuaded the world that Hitler was a German and Beethoven a Viennese?), the great dictator was Austrian to the core “and nothing he has brought to post-war Germany had not its existence in pre-war Austria.” This could have led her into a discussion of how it is that nationalism and chauvinism are often strongest at their peripheries—Alexander the Macedonian, Bonaparte the Corsican, Stalin the Georgian—but instead it prompted her to reflect on why it was that so many “progressive” types had so little sympathy for the smaller nations that lay in Hitler’s path. She concluded that “nationalism” had become a dirty word, much like “imperialism,” and that the grand plans of the rational and the logical did not allow for the eccentric and the anomalous. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon closes with an impassioned account of the resistance to the Axis on the part of small nations like Albania, Serbia, and Greece—which actually inflicted the first military defeats on fascism—and with the hope that a similar spirit has been evinced by the British when facing the Blitz. It is dedicated “To my friends in Yugoslavia, who are now all dead or enslaved.”

As I mentioned at the opening of this essay, it is impossible today to read Rebecca West’s travelogue without retrospection, in the literal sense of reviewing her project through the lens or prism of the terrible events of the early 1990s. A new generation of readers hears the name “Sarajevo” and sees the pitiless Serbian bombardment of an undefended city. The stony face of Miloševič in the dock is the symbol of ethnic cleansing—a term made real to us by the official Serbian propaganda that employed the word ciste (“clean”) for one of the devastated towns along the river Drina. Another term—Chetnik, or Serbian “chauvinist”—derives from a Serbian militia of the Second World War, led by General Draća Mihajlović, who at the time enjoyed Rebecca West’s strong support. The expression “Greater Serbia,” used by her almost as a positive, has become synonymous with the massacre at Srebrenica. The cultural treasures of Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic Coast, were shelled and looted by Montenegrin irregulars fighting on the Serbian side. (Actually, several of the most wanted war criminals from this period, from Radovan Karadżić to Ratko Mladić to Milošević himself, were Serbs of partly Montenegrin origin—which might lend point to my observation above, about nationalism being most intoxicating at its periphery.) The same, it must be said, held true of the fascists from western Herzegovina who united with some of their Croatian brothers to revive the Ustashe, who shattered and ruined the city of Mostar with its beautiful Ottoman bridge, and who made a cynical pact with Milożević and Karadżić to divide the territory of a defenseless Bosnia. About the Ustashe, West had warned us repeatedly. But she could not have pictured it acting in collusion with Serb irredentism. Milošević.and his henchmen did dreadful damage to Croatia and to Bosnia, with their Gerda-like belief, much of it derived from the mythology of 1389, that all Serb populations outside Serbia proper should be united under a common flag and rhetoric. But the greatest harm was arguably inflicted upon the Serbs themselves, who eventually saw their people driven out of ancestral territory in the ancient Krajina region (more or less unmentioned by West) and in Kosovo itself. More poignant still, Serbia lost its national honor and became an international pariah, trading arms with Saddam Hussein and relying on Mafia-type militias to do its dirty work. The body of Ivan Stambolić, Milšoević’s “disappeared” predecessor in office, was discovered in a shallow grave just as Milošević’s trial for war crimes was getting under way in The Hague. The glory had departed: Serbia stood before the world as a blood-spattered, bankrupt, quasi-fascist banana republic. By the end, even the loyal Montenegrins voted to quit the rump “federation” that was all that remained of the Yugoslav idea.

Arguments against Western intervention to end the war were often derived from an image of Serbian bravery and intransigence that drew upon West’s celebrated work, while very little in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon would have prepared the modern reader for the emergence of a secular Bosnian nationalism or for the long struggle of the Kosovar majority population against Serbian rule. I wrote to some of my more internationalist and liberal friends in the region, asking for their opinion of West and her book, and received answers like the following, from a Croatian academic who had strongly opposed the reactionary regime of Franjo Tudjman in his own country:

A good example is the chapter on Dubrovnik. She hated Whiggish England and “saw” her mum and dad in Dubrovnik. Hence, no sympathy for ol’ Ragusa. All of this seasoned with suspect history. Pure caricature. Or, the reductionist connection of Croatia with Germany, as opposed to the Serb noble savagery, that is pro-Allied and free of awful Teutonic formalism. Or the title: the noncompre hending idiot look of the Muslim who sacrifices a lamb at the Sheep’s Field vs the falcon of the Kosovo myth—Lazar’s choice, which is her choice.

Or this, from a Slovenian dissident:

Concerning the “Black Lamb” book: all of us “Slavs” are used to the double-bind situation: if you are too Westernised you are a fake: if not then you are a brute, primitive, etc. Rebecca West seems to avoid it by seeing Slavs as something special and admirable, if they remain true to themselves. So there again is the catch: somehow we keep falling out of our real selves. She has done her homework and mostly well enough. Still, almost no introspection, not much reflection on the nature of her own impact though a strong conviction of being at least a privileged observer.

Interestingly, in view of the fact that both these correspondents had themselves had somewhat “Red” pasts, neither mentions the most obvious lacuna in West’s book, which is her complete failure to anticipate the rise of Yugoslav communism during the Second World War. Whenever she mentions communist activity in the country—which is extremely seldom for a book of such length—it is in order to say things like this:

An English friend of mine once came on a tragic party of young men being sent down from a Bosnian manufacturing town to Sarajevo by a night train. All were in irons. The gendarmes told him that they were Communists. I expect that they were nothing of the sort. Real Marxian Communism is rare in Yugoslavia, for it is not attractive to a nation of peasant proprietors and the Comintern wastes little time and energy in this field.

While she was writing these words, a tough Croatian-Slovenian operator named Josip Broz Tito was rising through the apparat of the Comintern and was to go on to create a Red “partisan” army whose legend has still not quite died. Perhaps the reason for West’s endorsement of the Serb Chetniks in the ensuing Second World War was connected to her feeling that chieftains and brigands are somehow more representative of local traditions.

If the book fails certain tests as a history, and even as a travelogue, and if it has little predictive value and if (as Janet Montefiore has also pointed out) it shows some “unreliable narrator” characteristics as between West’s own private diary entries and the way in which the same events are set down on the page, then why does it, or why should it, remain a classic? I would tentatively offer three reasons, related to those that I gave at the outset. First, it shows the workings of a powerful and energetic mind, a mind both honed and dulled by anxieties that have only recently become intelligible to us. Second, it makes a sincere and admirable effort—often aspired to but seldom surpassed by later travel writers—to capture the texture and sinew of another civilization. (I find myself generally unmoved by religious architecture and devotional decoration, but I have made a visit to the church at Grachanitsa and found myself engrossed almost to the point of enchantment in her description of it almost six decades before. Writing on this level must be esteemed and shown to later generations, no matter what the subject.) Finally, I believe that West was one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understands that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for. As a modern woman she at first felt a need almost to apologize for this old-fashioned understanding, but then she shook herself awake and especially in her ice-cold but white-hot epilogue decided to defend it and advance it instead. If you like, she knew that the facing of death could be life affirming, and also that certain kinds of life are a version of death. Has anyone ever described the spirit of Munich, and its sudden evaporation, as finely or as tersely as this?

The instrument of our suicidal impetus, Neville Chamberlain, who had seemed as firmly entrenched in our Government as sugar in the kidneys of a diabetic patient, was gone.

Or this?

It was good to take up one’s courage again, which had been laid aside so long, and to feel how comfortably it fitted into the hand.

In any time of sniggering relativism and overbred despair, such as we have known and may know again, it is good to know that some enduring virtues can be affirmed, even if the wrong people sometimes take the right line, and even if people of education and refinement are often a little reluctant to trust their guts. Rebecca West was not at all too ladylike to emphasize the viscera and was often agreeably surprised when her stomach and her heart were (like those of her heroine Queen Elizabeth I) in agreement with her intellect. These are the elements from which greatness comes—and might even come again.

—Christopher Hitchens StanfordCalifornia



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