“There was everywhere the sweet-smelling scrub, and thickets of oleander, and the grey-blue swords of aloes; and on the lower slopes were olive terraces and lines of cypresses, spurting up with a vitality strange to see in what is black and not green.”
REBECCA WEST TRAVELS by road from Dubrovnik along the Adriatic Coast through Cavtat, Perast, and Kotor before returning via Gruda. A glance at a modern map produces some confusion: Perast and Kotor are in neighboring Montenegro, which West visits and documents later in the book. But in the mid-1930s, Perast and Kotor were part of Dalmatia. Not incidentally, both towns were occupied by Italy during World War II.
In Cavtat West recounts the story of Cadmus from Greek mythology, quoting Ovid’s account of the transformation of Cadmus and his wife into harmless snakes. Herpetological legend aside Cadmus is purported to have been buried here. Cadmus was the original Greek hero before Heracles, the founder of Thebes, and father of the Phoenician alphabet. As a result of his export of literacy, West argues, Cadmus was the nemesis of Pan who was once the subject of a cult here.
West was a much better linguist than she is credited for. She studied Latin in secondary school (not Greek, she notes in her interview with Marina Warner in The Paris Review, “in case [we] fell into the toils of the heretical Eastern Orthodox Church…”). Latin provides a solid foundation for learning the Romance languages, including French and Italian, both of which West spoke. But studying a formal, dead language also taught her to learn other languages on her own, including German and Serbo-Croatian, which she applies to certain characters later in the book.
In Greek mythology, Cadmus is the father of Illyrius, the King Arthur of the Western Balkans. It is from his son that we have the ancient state of Illyria which was, in effect, the first union of southern Slavs, a Canaanite Yugoslavia. For himself, Cadmus is best known as a dragon-slayer. St. Jerome narrates how Cadmus coaxed a monster from its cave to Epidaurus where it burned to death on a pyre. Epidaurus later became Cavtat, likely the Slavic homonym of the Latin civitas.
In Perast West describes a valley, “which cannot be true, which are an obvious Munchausen”. She is seeing the karst lake valleys created by the soluble sandstone foundation of the entire area. The lakes are cryptodepressions, that is, lower than sea level. The formations (and spelunking) are spectacular. But she also notes the lake valleys go through a seasonal transformation as they are full during winter but drain during the spring to produce very rich bottomland for cultivation. “In spring,” she writes, “an invisible presence pulls out a plug, and the water runs away through the limestone and out to sea.” It is invisible but not unknown: there is a subterranean tunnel, hewn by hand during the Austro-Hungarian regency, that empties the valley into the sea.
She also describes the islands in the Bay of Kotor, including the inspiration for a piece of gothic Symbolist art, the Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin. The island of St. George itself, West discovers, is not nearly the camp melodrama seen in the painting. “It is a chaste, almost mathematical arrangement of austerely shaped stones and trees,” she writes.
Another minor drama unfolds as the boatman brings them to another island where they are greeted by his emotional dog with which West spends a little too much time sympathizing. But the dog’s spectacle allows West to tee up a cut about cats and canines, leaving no question with which she identifies most: “I blushed a little for the dog’s abandonment, and was glad that no cat was by the sneer.”
Returning to Dubrovnik they stop in Gruda to admire a trio of young girls, “lovely as primroses in a wood.” “‘Pennies, pennies!’ they cried, laughing while we stared at them and adored them,” West recounts. She gets into an argument with her driver after asking him for a few tenpence to give the girls. He is reluctant and finds the begging disgraceful. West writes:
“There was much to be said for his point of view. Indeed, he was entirely right and we were wrong. But they were so beautiful, and in spite of their beauty they would be poor all their lives long, and that is an injustice I never can bear. It is the flat violation of a promise. Women are told from the day they are born that they must be beautiful, and if they are ugly everything is withheld from them, and the reason scarcely disguised. It follows therefore that women who are beautiful should want for nothing.”
This is not as straightforward and retrograde an evaluation of gender as it may appear at first glance. The social conditioning West describes is a fact in most societies and her admiration for the girls’ beauty is entirely genuine and consistent with her attitudes. Physical beauty as a yardstick of human worth is an uncomfortable idea. But West is arguing that poverty, as inescapable by the individual, is by far the greater injustice. (How tenpence could possibly alter the girls’ fate is left undiscussed.) And their driver’s comment as they leave the girls is even more revealing of their subordinate position in society. “[If] they are encouraged to be impudent when they are so young,” he says, “what will they be like when they are old?”