Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part II

Violence was indeed all I knew of the Balkans,' writes Rebecca West, 'all I knew of the South Slavs. And since there proceeds steadily from the southeastern corner of Europe a stream of events which are a danger to me, which indeed for years threatened my safety and deprived me forever of many benefits, that is to say I know nothing of my own destiny. The Balkan Peninsula was only two or three days distant, yet I had never troubled to go that short journey, which might explain to me how I shall die, and why.' So it was that in 1937 Rebecca West, with her husband, set out to explore the Balkans, and particularly Yugoslavia, to see for herself why the fate of the Continent and of England has so often been threatened by the Powderkeg of Europe. The story she brought back with her annihilates distance, and touches every thoughtful reader.

On the way to the sanatorium the party was more silent. The young men were hungry, we had all of us wet feet, the sky threatened more snow, and the houses were now few and widely scattered. We could understand enough to realize that it was worrying them a little that if the automobiles broke down we should have a long distance to walk before we found shelter. Nobody, however, seemed to blame Gregorievich. It was felt that he was following his star. But after an hour and a half we arrived at the sanatorium, which was a fine baroque castle set on a hill, abandoned by the Hungarian family that owned the other castle because the lands all round it had been taken away and given to peasant tenants under the very vigorous Agrarian Reform Scheme which the Yugoslavian Government put into effect after the war.

As we came to the gates a horde of people rushed out to meet us, and since my husband, who finds one of his greatest pleasures in inattention, had never grasped that this castle had been converted into a sanatorium, he believed them to be the family retainers, and wondered that such state could be kept up nowadays. But they were only the patients. They rushed out, men and women and children, all mixed together, some wearing ordinary Western clothes and some in peasant costume; some of the men wore the Moslem fez, for the Health Insurance Society which manages the sanatorium draws its members from all over Yugoslavia. They looked strangely unlike hospital patients. There was not the assumption of innocence which is noticeable in all but the wilder inmates of an English institution, the tramps and the eccentrics; not the pretense that they like starched sheets as a boundary to life, that the authority of doctors and nurses is easy to accept and reasonable in action, that they are as Sunday-school children mindful of their teachers. These people stood there dark, inquisitive, critical—our adults.

This was, of course, partly due to their mixed origin. Many of them came from parts of Yugoslavia where there was still no trace of a class system, where there were only peasants. They had, therefore, not the same sense that in going into a hospital a worker places himself in the hands of his superiors and must please them by seeming undangerous. But also, as it appeared when we went into the doctors' room, the theory of illness was not the same as in a Western European hospital. We found that the superintendent—who was a Serb, though long resident in Croatia, and pro-Croat in politics—and his three Croat assistants all had an oddly unmedical air to English eyes. I do not mean that they looked unbusinesslike; on the contrary, each of them had a sturdy air of competence and even power. But there was in their minds no vista of shiny hospital corridors leading to Harley Street and the peerage, with blameless tailoring and courtesy to patients and the handling of committees as subsidiary obligations, such as appears before most English doctors. There was no sense that medical genius must frustrate its own essential quality, which is a fierce concentration on the truth about physical problems, by cultivating a self-restraint and a conventional blankness which are incompatible with any ardent pursuit.

Had I been visiting a sanatorium in England, cold and with wet feet, I should have had to go to the matron's room, and time would have been wasted. Here we shook hands, hurried to the radiators, sat down on them, took off our shoes, and pressed our stocking soles against the warm iron, while the doctors talked around us. Did we know that tuberculosis was the scourge of the Southern Slavs? It had to be so, because the country was being rapidly industrialized. Peasants came to the towns blankly ignorant of hygiene, drawn by wages that looked high on paper and were in fact far too low to buy proper housing or clothing; and there was still so little hospital treatment that a tuberculosis case was as likely as not to remain untreated and spread infection. And this was not because they were Balkans. They said that with a sudden leap of fire to their eyes, which could be understood by anyone who has heard Germans or Austrians use the adjective Balkan, with a hawking excess of gross contempt. We English, they said, had had just as much tuberculosis at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

At the door a lovely nun had been telling them for some time that a meal was ready for us, but they would not listen, not till Constantine asked them if it was as painful to die of tuberculosis as it was to die of starvation. Then we were taken to the doctors' mess, which was curiously adorned with a vast poster of a nude woman who sat half obesely in the shade, half slenderly in the sunlight: it was an advertisement for a German preparation of hormones for middle aged women. There was humor in the choice; the poster was wrapped in mists from the heavy weather of nudism. We were given a great deal of plum brandy and then a platter of cold meat such as I never expect to eat in my life again. There was sucking pig so delicate that it could be spread on bread like butter, and there was veal as remarkable, in an austerer way, and ham and sausage and tongue, cheese and butter and capers, all superb in their class. All the food was raised on the lands round the sanatorium and prepared by the nuns who staffed it.

'The patients eat such food,' said the superintendent, with pride. 'Everything costs so little, we might as well have it. But I am sorry, we expected you at twelve and it is now two; the rest of the dinner will not be ready for some time, so we will take you round the sanatorium.' My husband and I laughed politely, believing him to be joking, and thanked him for the meal. 'No, that was only the hors d'oeuvres,' said the doctor. We could not dispute it, for he had spoken in the tone of one accompanying to the opera a barbarian guest who prepares to leave at the end of the overture.

The place was clean, fanatically clean, clean like a battleship. There at least was something that an English hospital authority would have had to approve; perhaps, however, the only thing it could. The patients within doors were shocking to Western theories, as they had been when they had met us out of doors on our arrival. They were evidently preoccupied with the imaginative realization of their sickness, and no one was attempting to interfere with them in their pleasure. This was a visiting day; and in what had been the grand drawing-room of the ladies of the castle, a large apartment adorned with sugary Italianate late nineteenth-century murals representing the islands of the blest, women sat holding their handkerchiefs to their lips with the plangent pathos of La Dame aux Camelias, and men assumed the sunrise mixed with sunset glamour of the young Keats, while their families made no attempt to distract them from these theatrical impersonations but watched with sympathy, as audiences should.

The patients who had no visitors were resting; and when we went into the wards they were lying on their beds, the quilts drawn over their mouths, the open windows showing a firmament unsteadily yet regularly cleft by the changing stripes of snowfall. Shivering, they stared at us, their eyes enormous over the edges of their quilts, enjoying at its most dramatic the sense of the difference between our health and their disease; and indeed, in the dark beam of their hypnotic and hypnotized gaze, the strangeness of their plight became newly apparent, the paradox of the necessity which obliged them to accept as a savior the cold which their bodies believed to be an enemy, and to reject as death the warmth which was the known temperature of life. The doctors beside us appeared to take for granted this atmosphere of poetic intensity, and made none of the bouncing gestures, none of the hollow invocations to optimism which in England are perpetually inflicted on any of the sick who show consciousness of their state.

The tolerance of these doctors, indeed, was wide. As we passed along a corridor overlooking the courtyard, there trembled, in one of the deep recesses the windows made in the thickness of the wall, a shadow that was almost certainly two shadows, fused by a strong preference. 'Yes,' said the superintendent, 'they sometimes fall in love, and it is a very good thing. It sometimes makes all the difference; they get a new appetite for living, and then they do so well.' That was the answer to all our Western scruples. The patients were doing so well. Allowed to cast themselves for great tragic roles, they were experiencing the exhilaration felt by great tragic actors.

The doctors themselves had chosen good enough roles. They were enjoying the sense of power which comes to the scientist when he applies his knowledge to a primitive people. They talked of the peasants as of beautiful and vigorous animals that have to be coaxed and trapped and bludgeoned into submitting to the treatment which will keep alive the flame in their bodies without which they will have neither beauty nor vigor. So, of course, do any colonial administrators; but these doctors cared for loveliness with the uncorrupted eye of an unmechanized race, and though they were divided from the patients by the gulf that divides a university graduate from a peasant, that gulf was bridged by the consciousness that they all were Slavs and that their forbears had all been peasants together. Each of these doctors was a magician who was working his spells to save his father and his mother.

It is this same situation, I imagine, that is responsible for the peculiar enthusiasm shown by officials engaged in the social services in Soviet Russia, which is often regarded as a specific effect of a Communist regime but which could certainly be matched all over the Balkans, in all the Baltic provinces that were formerly under the Tsardom, and Turkey. These Yugoslavs were intoxicated with their X-ray department and their operating theatre, where they had a pretty record of successful collapses of the lung, and with their plumbing. 'We have to teach them everything—everything, you understand!' said the superintendent, leading us into the men's lavatory as into a workshop where something really interesting was made. He explained how each closet was used only by the inmates of certain beds, so that offenses against cleanliness could be checked, and how they were all taught again and again that excrement which was merely useful manure in the country was a source of deadly danger in town.

I perceived that America's interest in plumbing might not be a sign of artificiality and standardization, but of its recent emergence from a pioneer state. Those who have been brought up in mechanized civilization, the disposal of excrement seems no problem at all, simply because it is so grave that it has had to be efficiently solved. But to people who have just moved from country into town it must be a nightmare which they dispel with the force that yesterday they spent on cutting down trees and damming rivers, and gain thereby, owing to certain identifications our idiot mind makes too easily, a sense of victory over sin. We saw in this Serb's bright eyes this obscure form of romanticism at the moment of its flowering.

'We teach them, and we feed them!' he cried, hurrying us down the corridors, down a staircase of stone so old it was black as iron, and through a door of wood so old that it shone like glass, to a vast kitchen, obscure in its great vaulted roof, glowing near the fires which were roaring like the night wind in a forest. At long tables half as thick as tree trunks, pretty nuns in white robes put the last touches to that state of order which women make twice a day after meals and live only to unmake. The prettiest one of all we found in a store-room half the size of my flat in London, standing by a table covered with the little sweet biscuits made of nuts and meringue and fine pastry which are loved in every Slav country. We caught her eating one. She swallowed it in a gulp, and faced out the men's roar of laughter in the most serene confusion imaginable, smiling with some tiny crumbs caught in the fair down on her upper lip.

It was then that somebody remembered that our dinner was ready for us: our real dinner. Very soon we were back in the officers' mess, drinking a great deal of white wine and eating pancakes stuffed with chopped steak and mushrooms and chickens' livers. 'This is the best dish I have ever eaten in my life,' said my husband, and I could have said the same. Then they brought spring chicken served with a border of rice on a bed of young vegetables, which we could admire only as dramatic critics can admire plays; we knew it was good, but we had eaten too much to enjoy it.

That, at least, was our opinion, but the superintendent urged us on. 'There is no such food as we have here!' he said. 'You must eat a lot. Look, we all do! You must!' We looked round at our companions, and saw that they were sitting in front of plates heaped beyond the demands of any normal appetite. Even Constantine, who is as a rule priggish in his abstinence, was behind a mountain. Valetta said in my ear, 'You really must eat, you know. They will think you dislike their food if you do not. It is our custom to give our guests too much to eat, as a kind of boastfulness, and of course out of good will, and the guests show how strong they are by eating it. We are really a very primitive people, I am afraid.'

I believed him, for I saw there was more on Gregorievich's plate than on anybody else's, and I knew that no grossness of appetite would have persuaded him to overeat unless the act of overeating had been sanctioned by Croatian custom. My husband and I took a second helping of chicken, and once we had accepted the idea that we must throw overboard our Western belief that what one ate should be decided by physiological requirements, we found that the pleasure of taste survived longer than would be expected. 'And mind you,' cried the superintendent, 'this is the same food that we give to the patients. They have just the same as this. It is so cheap we need not skimp it. And that it is fresh and well-cooked costs us nothing extra.' We were by then eating a compote of quinces, cherries, and peaches, with the little biscuits like the one we had found the nun eating. 'We send the patients home,' said another of the doctors, waving his glass at me, 'five and ten and fifteen kilos heavier.'

'We send the patients home five, ten, and fifteen kilos heavier.' That phrase had struck on my ears like a bell, because it referred to the belief which was at the bottom of the Slav way of living, which made all Yugoslav events and institutions so completely different from their Western counterparts. These people held 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. It was that contrast which had made every minute of this visit to the sanatorium interesting.

With us, a satisfactory hospital patient is one who, for the time being at least, has been castrated of all adult attributes. With us, an acceptable doctor is one with all asperities characteristic of gifted men rubbed down, by conformity with social standards, to a shining, cornerless blandness. With us, a suitable hospital diet is food from which everything toxic and irritant has been removed, the eunuchized pulp of steamed fish and stewed prunes. 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 wanted to alter, not the patient. And that doctor himself might be just like another man, provided he possessed also a fierce intention to cure. And to him the best hospital diet would be that which brought the most juices to the mouth; and there was not the obvious flaw in the argument that one might think, for the chicken and the compote were the standard dishes of any nursing home, but these were good to eat. One of the doctors raised his glass to me; I raised my glass to him, enjoying communion with this rich world that added instead of subtracting.

The worshipers at Shestine had come before the altar with a habit of addition, which made them pour out the gift of their adoration on the godhead, which made them add to themselves by imaginative realization the divine qualities which they were contemplating in order to adore. The effect had been of enormous, reassuring natural wealth; and that was what I had found in Yugoslavia on my first visit. I had come on stores of wealth as impressive as the diamonds of Golconda or the gold of Klondike, which took every form except actual material wealth. Now the superintendent was proposing the health of my husband and myself, and when he said, 'We are doing our best here, but we are a poor country,' it seemed to me he was being as funny as rich people who talk to their poor relatives about the large amount they have to pay in income tax.

'But since they have this Slav abundance here and at Shestine,' I wondered, 'why have I had so little enjoyment of it since I arrived?' But my attention was caught by a crack that had suddenly begun to fissure the occasion. The superintendent had been telling my husband and me what pleasure he had in welcoming us to Croatia, when Gregorievich leaned across the table and corrected him. 'To Yugoslavia,' he said in the accents of a tutor anxious to recall his pupil to truth and accuracy. There fell a silence. 'To Yugoslavia,' he repeated. After another silence the superintendent said, 'Yes, I will say that I welcome them to Yugoslavia. Who am I, being a Serb, to refuse this favor to a Croat?'

They all laughed kindly at Gregorievich after that; but there had sounded for an instant the authentic wail of poverty, in its dire extreme, that is caused by a certain kind of politics. Such politics we know very well in Ireland. They grow on a basis of past injustice. A proud people acquire a habit of resistance to foreign oppression, and by the time they have driven out their oppressors they have forgotten that agreement is a pleasure and that a society which has attained tranquillity will be able to pursue many delightful ends. There they continue to wrangle, finding abundant material in the odds and ends of injustices that are left over from the period of tyranny and need to be tidied up in one way or another. Such polities are a leak in the community.

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