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‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’ by Rebecca West: A book that no cultured person should ignore

The legendary travel book, one of the author’s four masterpieces, traverses the former Yugoslavia at a time when the seed was being planted for the wars to come that would ravage the region

Rebecca West
Rebecca West in an image from 1969.Dominique BERRETTY (Gamma-Rapho

Cicely Isabel Fairfield (1892-1983) took on the pseudonym Rebecca West in homage to the protagonist of Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic play Rosmersholm. She was an English language woman writer at a moment in which it was hard to be a woman, anti-fascist, anti-communist and antiauthoritarian. She is the author of four masterpieces — four — in various genres: The Return of the Soldier — a brilliant use of the limited point of view — in addition to the Aubrey trilogy of novels; A Train of Powder, her celebrated journalistic chronicles of the Nuremberg trials; Meaning of Treason, a superb essay on the English spies in the service of Nazism and communism; and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her legendary travel book. Her friends were a who’s-who of 20th century intellectuals, from George Bernard Shaw to Anaïs Nin and Charles Chaplin. Her independent character and sense of ethics fascinated men as much as they feared her. At the age of 16, she published an open letter in The Scotsman demanding the vote for women, which cost her friendships with her peers at their school for young ladies. She had a stormy relationship with H.G. Wells, a well-known misogynist with whom she had a son, and from whom she would finally separate. Her great-niece, Helen Atkinson, recounted how when she first went to visit her great-aunt, her parents gave her strict instructions not to mention Wells in her presence. West was a fearless individual who did not hesitate to harshly criticize Tolstoy and Strindberg, and branded T.S. Eliot a phony. In 1947, Time magazine dedicate a cover to her, referring to West as “indisputably the world’s number one woman writer” and The New Yorker judged her the best woman journalist.

From the very first words of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the reader becomes immersed in West’s powerful, dominant and lucid text. It starts with a preface that speaks of the harassment carried out by the authoritarian Archduchess Sophie, who was mother-in-law — she was Franz Joseph’s mother — of Elisabeth of Bavaria, a.k.a. Sisi, for whom West displays noble sympathy. Here, she relates the murders of Sisi, rulers Alexander and Draga of Serbia and Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in which she perceives the breeding ground that would eventually lead to the war of 1914-1918 and the emergence of Nazism and Fascism that would detonate the explosion of the second great war. These early pages already contain a warning about the kind of intelligence, expressive power and courage of the journey undertaken in those interwar years by the author, whose penetrating vision then arrives at the motivations behind the terrible Croatian-Serbian war of 1999-2001, as well as the dismemberment of Josip Broz Tito’s former Yugoslavia. West’s sensitivity and intelligence in portraying the forces that led to the terrible conflict that has now overtaken the West is indicative of journalism that has been elevated to greatness. This unsurpassable example of travel literature is to be published in two volumes, and the first has just appeared courtesy of the publishing house that was owned by Javier Marías, a sort of posthumous homage to his admired author from the editor of the rest of her non-fiction work.

“I had come to Yugoslavia,” writes West in her journal from 1937, “because I knew that the past has made the present, and I wanted to see how the process works.” Herein lies the basis of this exceptional work. The book is the confirmation of the inexhaustible existence of that which is different among people and places, in this case the history and reality of the South Slavs, considered by the West to be an amalgam of violence and barbarism, always dominated by the merciless and continuous presence of Austria and Hungary, whose debt to the South Slavs stems from them having stopped the Turkish invasion of Europe with their bravery. The secret is that the author, owner of an extraordinary expressiveness and quite refined culture, offers a lesson in the ability to put oneself in the other’s place in order to try to understand them.

The author’s observations are as suggestive as they are precise; as an example, witness her specific take on Croatian women at a Zagreb flea market (“They gave the sense of the very opposite of what we mean by the word ‘peasant’ when we use it in a derogatory sense, thinking of women made doltish by repeated pregnancies and a lifetime spent in the service of oafs in villages that swim in mud to the thresholds every winter”). West uses the human and scenic material of the Yugoslavian towns through which she travels, interweaving it with their history, translating into a story of constant amenity, as well as an impeccable version of the conflictive relations between Croatia, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. This makes the Slavic world unfold before the reader’s eyes as the result of a revealing mosaic: nationalities full of people as passionate as they are proud of their love for their land which, paradoxically, has led them to untold slaughter.

It’s a formidable fresco, the legacy of a unique woman and vocational traveler that should be read with an attentive slowness to enjoy it as one should, and as it demands. A book that no cultured person should ignore.

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