“Politics, always politics. In the middle of the night, when there is a rap on our bedroom door, it is politics.” (Croatia/Zagreb VII)
ENDING THE JOURNEY of the previous chapter, Rebecca West and her husband arrive in Zagreb proper. Three friends, standing in the rain, greet them on the railway platform. One of them is arguably the most important character of the book besides West and the other two play rhetorical archetypes to set up an argument that will weave its way throughout the book: the nature and benefit of Yugoslavism, the Yugoslav idea, and Yugoslavia itself.
West calls the three men Constantine, Valetta, and Marko Gregorijević. These are pseudonyms and eccentric ones at that. Valetta is described as a young Croatian from Dalmatia, 26 years old. He lectures in mathematics at the University of Zagreb. Gregorijević is an older Croatian journalist and critic, 57 years old. Based on the little biographical information West provides us, I was unable to determine the true identities of these two men (although Valetta may have been Stanko Bilinski, a mathematician of some renown, who matches Valetta’s profession and approximate birthdate but not his region of origin). I do not have access to West’s papers and the men are not described in her Selected Letters. They are not identified by even Croatian language references and sources I have searched.
Constantine, however, is much better documented, possibly because he is such a dynamic character in the book. He accompanies West throughout most of the journey she documents (and his wife, to appear later, will provide an archetype in another argument West sustains throughout the book.) Constantine’s real name is Stanislav Vinaver. West describes him as a poet, a Serb, an Orthodox, and a Yugoslav government functionary (as a censor). On the first page we meet him, she writes:
“Constantine is short and fat, with a head like the best-known satyr in the Louvre, and an air of vine-leaves about the brow, though he drinks little. He is perpetually drunk on what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it. He talks incessantly.”
West relates that Constantine’s heritage is Jewish; his parents immigrated from the Pale of Settlement, at the time Russian Poland. He was born in Serbia and converted to the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is a Serb patriot in word and deed; he fought against Austria during World War I as part of the Serbian army. His father, a physician, was a medical officer during the war but died in a typhus outbreak in 1915. Constantine later fought in the royal Yugoslav army against the Germans during World War II. Captured, he was held as a prisoner of war but survived and died in 1955. His mother was less fortunate. She was murdered as a Jew by the Nazis during the occupation.
While compelling as a character in the book, Vinaver as an individual was more unnerving. In a letter to her sister during her first, unaccompanied visit, West recounts a harrowing experience with Vinaver in Ohrid, Macedonia. There, he attempts to sexually assault West in her hotel room not once but twice. Twice she fights him off, literally. But he is her official government minder and interpreter, she does not speak the language, has little money and no way to return to Skopje, so she is obliged to maintain his company until they return to the capital. On the return trip, she contracts a strep infection of the skin and runs a fever. She is confined to her hotel room, miserably ill. But this does not keep Vinaver from accosting her a third time. “For 3 hours,” she writes, “he stamped and raved and blustered beside my bed.” As a government official, he may have been unavoidable on her subsequent trips. But it also explains why West made this second trip accompanied by her husband.
In Zagreb, Constantine is the third leg on the uncomfortable stool that supports the political debate over Yugoslavia. Constantine is a Serb by adoption with the aggressive patriotic fervor of a convert. Gregorijević is an old Croat (West describes him as a dour version of Pluto, Mickey Mouse’s dog) who fought Hungarian domination of Croatia by the Habsburgs and sees Yugoslavia as a bulwark against imperial imposition. Valetta is too young to remember a time when Croatia was not part of Yugoslavia and views this political construct as a vehicle for Serb domination of its neighbors. (Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I and his issue, Peter II, who ruled Yugoslavia during this time, were Serbian by birth.) Although West finds their bickering tiresome, the debate personifies the political dynamics of the Balkans. I will discuss the idea of Yugoslavia in a later post. For now, you can see here the paradox of the Yugoslav experiment: individually, Yugoslavia’s constituent nations are too weak to defend themselves against their larger neighbors, but together Serbia dominates the union.
West and company visit St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb and another church in Šestine, in the mountains north of Zagreb. She does not name St. Mirko’s Church, which sits on a small rise at the town crossroads. But here again West’s description is so perfect that there is no doubt this is the church: “full to the doors, bright inside as a garden, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue and the unique, rough, warm white of homespun, and shaking with song.” I found this description of a Catholic mass bracing since good music has been thoroughly driven out of the Church in the United States.
They visit “Two Castles” that West also does not name. It is unclear why. They take government motorcars through heavy snow, which delights her and the locals who occasionally have to dig the vehicles out (“doubtless anxious to get back and tell a horse about it”). The castles can be found as she describes them. For example, she writes about the Trakošćan Castle as “something like a Balliol,” that is, the Oxford college (coincidentally Christopher Hitchens‘), which turns out to be perfectly apt. It dates to the 13th century but is stuffed full of Austrian cultural detritus – “a clutterment of the most hideous furniture…walloping stuff bigger than any calculations of use could have suggested, big in accordance with a vulgar idea that bigness is splendid….” This may appear frivolous – is there anything more poncy than English critique of interior design? – but it serves West’s larger argument that imperial imposition destroys and displaces local cultural expression that is delightful when left alone.
The second castle they visit was built by the same house that owned the first. A large hilltop fortification, it served during West’s visit as a tuberculosis sanitorium. Happily, today, Klenovnik Castle is a modern hospital treating pulmonary diseases. It remains the largest castle in the country.
“[T]he place was clean, fantastically clean, clean like a battleship,” she writes, noting that might be the only thing it had in common with English hospitals which she knows too well. West admires the hospital, its patients and doctors, and its methods precisely because they were un-English. The doctors are doting but forbearing with their patients, whom they treat in what we might call a holistic way. The food is excellent, grown on the castle grounds, and ample enough to send patients home several kilograms heavier. “[The patients] sometimes fall in love, and it is a very good thing,” the superintendent remarks. “It sometimes makes all the difference, they get a new appetite for living, and they do so well.” West approves. She writes:
“These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it. … Here a patient could be adult, primitive, dusky, defensive; if he chose to foster a poetic fantasy or personal passion to tide him over his crisis, so much the better. It was the tuberculosis germ that the doctor want to alter, not the patient….”
West delights in good things that give pleasure and she sees those things in the sanitorium. This is the soft edge of a sharper argument she makes more explicit later in the book: that good things are good on their own, they exist for our pleasure, and don’t require sacrifice, pain, or the prospect of death to enjoy. This almost feels like moral philosophy but as we might apply it to tangible things like the embroidered homespun, strong plum brandy, or “sucking-pig so delicate that it could be spread on bread like butter” that she enjoys while in Croatia.
West ends this chapter with a miniature social comedy. She, her husband, and Constantine visit the Gregorijevićs, husband and wife both described as long and melancholy as Great Danes. They have a small dog who expresses its outrage at these strangers by defecating on the living room rug. The Gregorijevićs are mortified, even more so as West and her husband try to defuse the situation with humor, a very English trait. The family’s maid, “in peasant costume,” comes to clean up, “grinning from ear to ear at the joke the dog’s nature had played on the gentry.” Constantine rescues the Gregorijevićs’ dignity by solemnly taking up the piano to play a Bach motet and then a Mozart sonata. This may appear to be simply an amusing endnote to her visit, but again West manages to weave her themes through it. Gregorijević takes Henry aside “to murmur in a voice hoarse with resentment that he had owned both the poodle’s father and grandmother, and that neither of them would ever have dreamed of behaving in such a away. ‘Nothing, man or beast, is as it was. Our ideals, think what has happened to our ideals…what has happened to our patriots.’…”
For some, the country has literally gone to the dogs.