“But these people’s culture instructed them exactly how best they might live where they must live.”
BY TRAIN REBECCA West and her husband travel from Zagreb to Sušak in Dalmatia. From there they travel by car and boat to several towns along Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. She visits, in sequence, Sušak, Senj, Rab, Split, Salonae, Trogir, Korčula, and Dubrovnik, a series of coastal and island cities at one time mostly self-governing. This is the most travelogue-like part of the book. West acts like a tourist guide, noting points of interest for the reader. It is a peculiar departure from the omniscient voice she has used so far to braid criticism, biography, and history into a single narrative strand.
Then as now the Dalmatian coast is a southern European Mediterranean tourist destination. Dalmatia carries no political significance: it is an historical region, not an administrative district. It has mostly been part of Croatia throughout history. Incidentally, the Dalmatian dog breed is indeed from the region, with historical records documenting its appearance as far back as the mid-14th century.
Although each city is part of Dalmatia and shares much of the same history, every one is unique and distinct from the other. To me it recalls the unique cultures and strange customs of individual rabbit warrens described by Richard Adams in Watership Down. This is the benefit of reading West’s account. She combines her intense focus and aesthetic sense with extraordinary precision of language so that even without seeing what she is describing it is impossible to confuse one thing for another and, when you do look for what she is describing, it is very easy to find it. She does not characterize things. She describes them.
So West wanders the repurposed ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, which today forms the historic old quarter of Split. She describes the four church towers that dominate the island village of Rab. She describes the ramparts of Dubrovnik. Also the lack of ramparts in Trogir. There, the occupying Turks tore down the town walls and later occupiers refused to rebuild them. The result, West writes, is “like a plant grown in a flower-pot when the pot is broken but the earth and roots still hang together.”
The history of the region includes almost constant invasion. Each of the small city-states had to build alliances, fight off invaders, resettle refugees. Avars, Goths, Huns, Romans, Mongols. Turks, Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians. French, English, Germans. It is easy to be numbed by the drumming repetition of invasions, battles, empires, displacements, and occupation that West enumerates alongside plagues and earthquakes. She does this to serve her argument against empire. But when the full scope of the political disturbance over centuries is clear, it explains both the rise of Yugoslavia and its fall. It also strongly asserts that for a region with a reputation for instability and fratricidal violence, most of that violence was brought here.
In Korčula, she worries that an extraordinary experience visiting the city in the previous year has inflated her expectations for this visit. Then, she had witnessed virtually the entire town gather on the quai to carry a young and beautiful but desperately sick girl to a boat that would take her to a hospital. It was clear to West that the girl was resigned to her fate but in a way suggesting a self-regarding romance affected by adolescents. Then the same crowd parted for another woman carried on a litter, an old crone who like the girl was desperately ill but unlike her absolutely defiant in the face of death: “When the stretcher-bearers halted in manoeuvering her up the gangway she rose up in her chair, a twisted hieroglyphic expressing the love of life, and uttered an angry sound she might have used to a mule that was stopping in midstream.”
“The appetite for life comes from eating,” West concludes. Pleasure in life requires investment.
It is the point of travel to witness something you have never seen before and could not imagine based on your experience. West applies this to what she sees is the life-affirming aspect of Slavic culture. Korčula does not disappoint during her second trip. This time West and her husband wake in their hotel and step out with cups of coffee to watch a white steamer – “lovely as a lady and drunk as a lord” – drift to the quai. It is listing heavily to the port side, filled as it is with young army conscripts eager to see a new town. The quai is itself thick with waiting soldiers who are all singing together (an anti-government song, West’s guide notes). The soldiers board and the steamer sails away, sitting lower in the water. West hears all the young men on board singing, the song carrying across the water.
West wends biography inextricably into the landscape. She focuses in particular on Diocletian, a late emperor of Rome in the 3rd century. In Split he is best remembered for the retirement palace he built for himself in what is now the historic old town. It is a huge space – more than eight acres – that was until recently essentially reclaimed land. When West visited she saw the palace carved up into apartments and shops used by average people. Henry Andrews has carried with him a heavy book of lithographs by Robert Adams, who documented the palace and many other sites throughout the region in the late 18th century.
Diocletian was a Dalmatian born in Salonae to a poor family. He rose in the ranks of the Roman Legion and was proclaimed emperor after the death of Carus and Numerian on campaign in Persia. He presided over a relatively stable period of time for Rome, resolving the crisis in the 3rd century by instituting a co-emperorship called the Tetrarchy to rule over the four geographic regions of the empire. This shouldn’t have worked – power hates sharing much more than it abhors a vacuum – but it did until Diocletian abdicated his role. He died only a few years into his retirement.
Diocletian’s retirement appears, in the historical narrative, as a point of no return in classical antiquity. The Tetrarchy collapsed in his absence and Rome fell into civil war that lasted 15 years until Constantine (Flavius Valerius Constantinus, not incidentally born in Niš, Serbia, perhaps the reason why West gave her Serbian guide the same name) consolidated control. Constantine’s shift of the political center from Rome to what is now Istanbul set in motion the split between eastern and western empires in the 4th century and the collapse of Rome in the 5th century. In many respects, Diocletian was the last undisputed Roman emperor.
West has a guide in Split. As with most of the contemporaries she mentions, she applies a pseudonym. In this case, she is accompanied by a man she calls the Professor. Most of the details she provides for him – he is older but not aged, he has abundant physical energy, and he was a leader of the Mt. Marjan Association – suggests this is Prof. Umberto Girometta, who despite his Italian name was a Croatian who was born and died in Split. He epitomizes the late-19th century European adventurer. Girometta was an alpinist, mountaineer, spelunker, and paleontologist, expertise he trained almost exclusively on Split and Croatia.
Mt. Marjan itself is an extraordinary story of resource depletion and community restoration. When Venice controlled Split, the Italians stripped the entire mountainside for pine to build its trading fleet. After regaining sovereignty, Split embarked on a remarkable renewal project that continues today. The pine and macchia were replanted and what had been a naked hillock is once again thick with trees, a nature preserve known as “the lungs of the city”.
Here we find evidence of West’s endorsement of traditional notions of sex and gender. She admires the raw masculinity of local men practicing age-old craft like shipbuilding. “These were men, they could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their worlds,” she writes. The work they do is simple yet rugged and perfectly adapted in form and function to their ascetic coastal life. She compares these men unfavorably to a “cityish” sort of man, preferred by the English, “in the Foreign Office who has a peevishly amusing voice and is very delicate….” She admires feminine beauty and sexual attraction in women. “She was elderly, though not old,” she describes a local matriarch, “and it could be seen that she had been very lovely; and immediately she began to flirt with my husband.” This is uncomfortably close to certain cultural norms held by the far right, then as now. But she elides outright homophobia and it is difficult to square these notions with her avant-garde feminism.
Her use of language would be found problematic by modern audiences. This includes a color descriptor involving a racial slur, which was commonly used a century ago, and also this: “It is doubtful if even our own times can provide anything as hideous as the Mongol invasion, as this dispensing of horrible death by yellow people made terrible as demons by their own unfamiliarity.” (The Balkans were spared long-term occupation due to a succession crisis in Mongolia.) But here again it is difficult to nail West to the pillory. Her next sentence reads, “It is true that the establishment of the Mongol Empire was ultimately an excellent thing for the human spirit, since it made Asiatic culture available to Europe.” And it is clear that she is describing an invasion from the point of view of the invaded who cannot be expected to receive pillage, rase, and rape with enlightened tolerance.