“My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all. But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter. It will all be quite clear once we are in Yugoslavia.” (Prologue)
Rebecca West made three trips to Yugoslavia in the late 1930s but never again visited the country, even after the end of World War II. The single volume treats these three journeys as one long meditation. She first visited for a lecture tour organized by the British Council in the spring of 1936, which explains in part her delight in Orthodox Easter while she visited Skopje and Ohrid in Macedonia and Belgrade in Serbia. She was seriously ill in Yugoslavia and sought treatment outside the country. It was during this travel to and from Yugoslavia through Central Europe that she witnessed the cultural shift and aggressive preparation in Germany in particular that presaged World War II.
West made her second visit, this time with husband Henry Andrews accompanying her, in spring of 1937, returning that May. He is not named but provides quiet observation and mordant commentary throughout the narrative. Under deadline pressure for an opus that was ballooning into two volumes, West returned a third time in 1938. The book was published shortly after the Battle of Britain during World War II, the result of five years’ writing and research.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has always been classified as a travel book or travelogue since it describes itself as “a journey through Yugoslavia.” As I and other authors have noted, it remains indispensable as an accompaniment to visiting the region because it describes with such clarity what still remains there. But it is evident from the start that the story is not really about a journey, country, or even history. She is working on something much larger. The place in time and the journey through it are framing devices for expansive interrogations of politics, identity, gender, historiography, religion, the nature of good and evil, empire, life, pleasure, pain, liberty, and death. These were all topics West spent much of her life thinking and writing about, and they all came together in this book. “It was much more than a travel book,” writes biographer Victoria Glendenning. “It turned out to be the central book of her life.”
Nevertheless, without recourse to an established genre it is difficult to explain the book at all. I borrowed prosopography as the closest, if unfamiliar, descriptor: a history of a people as a collective, particularly in contrast to other groups. In any event, the term helps explain how West categorizes people according to (currently outdated) notions of race or nation. In West’s Europe there are Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, Jews and Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, Turks and Macedonians, Serbs and Croats, and so on. Using this sorting tool, she draws lessons from the experiences of individual nations, for this is how millennia of conquerors, colonizers and empires viewed them. It is also how they saw themselves.
Yugoslavia was at the time of her first visit not even 20 years old. The idea of a federated polity of Slavic-language speakers in Southern Europe dates to the late 17th century, but it was created only in 1918 from the possessions of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and included the independent Serbia in the aftermath of World War I. The ethnic, religious, and linguistic regions had existed for centuries and throughout its tortured history regional and global powers exploited those fractures. Over time the area late known as Yugoslavia was occupied, annexed, colonized, or conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and Turks. This explains in part the Yugoslav experiment: a modern federation was stronger than any of its individual member republics against the predations of its more powerful neighbors.
Some of those constituent republics West visited don’t really exist. At least one country she didn’t visit at all. In the book’s table of contents West lists, in order, Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro. Today Macedonia is officially North Macedonia. Herzegovina is an historic region of Bosnia but has never been geographically defined and serves no administrative purpose. The Croatian peninsula of Dalmatia is similarly an undefined historical region and former kingdom.
Old Serbia is Kosovo, which for most of its modern history was part of Serbia. It was an eyalet, or province, under Ottoman rule. Socialist Yugoslavia declared Kosovo an autonomous area, a status that was revoked after 1989. Following the federal campaign against Kosovo in 1999, NATO secured the territory, which declared itself an independent state in 2008. West visited Kosovo but not Albania, which while not part of Yugoslavia shared the language and religion, Islam, of the majority of Kosovars then as now.
But as we will soon see, West’s omnivorous appetite for detail provides her a critical tool that even many academics and certainly most journalists do not possess. From this book, West is often quoted that she “had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.” That serves certain easily digested narratives. Her real agenda is more comprehensively summarized by a story she recounts in the prologue. She discovers to her horror and despair that a Viennese laundry has completely destroyed the Macedonian peasant dresses she had brought with her. This acts as a parable about how the West broadly and imperialism in particular devalue and degrade small vibrant cultures and communities. Oppressive reign ruins those it rules. West’s husband does not understand her emotional reaction and wonders what Macedonia could possibly have that could upset her so much. “Well, there is everything there,” she says. “Except what we have. But that seems very little.” This is a powerful display of empathy that is the root and branch of all great writing.