“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)
FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.
I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.
After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself. When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops. Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union. As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning.
My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.
That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.
There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.
That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)
I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017. It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary. Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way. So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.
With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.
Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK. It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.