Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part III

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.

NO weather can make the Northern Dalmatian coast look anything but drear. The dreariness is so extreme that it astounds like luxuriance, it gluts the mind with excess of deprivation. The hills are naked. Tracks lead over this naked rock, but it is hard to believe that they lead anywhere; it seems probable that they are traced by desperate men fleeing from barrenness, and doomed to die in barrenness. And indeed these bald hills mean a great deal of desperation. The rainfall sweeps down their slopes in torrents and carries away the soil instead of seeping into it and fertilizing it. The peasants collect what soil they can from the base of the hills and carry it up again and pack it in terraces; but there is not enough soil, and the terraces are often swept away by the torrents.

The human animal is not competent. That is the meaning of the naked Dalmatian hills. For once they were clothed with woods. These the earliest inhabitants of Dalmatia, the Illyrians and Ottomans, axed with an innocent carelessness; and the first Slav settlers were reckless too, for they came from the inexhaustible primeval forest of the Balkan peninsula. Then for three hundred years, from about the time of the Norman Conquest to 1420, the Hungarians struggled with the Venetians for the mastery of this coast, and the nations got no further with their husbandry. Then the Venetian Republic established its claim, and thereafter its administrators showed the carelessness that egotistic people show in dealing with other people's property.

They cut down the Dalmatian forests to get timbers for their fleet and piles for their palaces; and they wasted far more than they used. Venetian administration was extremely inefficient, and we know not only from Slav complaints but from the furious accusation of the Republic against its own people that vast quantities of timber were purloined by minor officials and put on the market, and that again and again supplies were delivered at the dockyard so far beyond all naval needs that they had to be let rot where they lay. After this wholesale denudation it was not easy to grow the trees again. The north wind, which blows great guns here in winter, is hard on young plantations; and the peasant, as he got poorer, relied more and more on his goat, a vivacious animal insensible to the importance of afforestation. The poor peasant is also sometimes a thief, and it is easier to steal a young tree than a fully grown one. So, for all the Yugoslavian Government can do, the mainland and the islands gleam like monstrous worked flints.

Bare hills, and young men that shout—both the product of human incompetence, of misgovernment. That is the immediate impression given by North Dalmatia. We met our first young man very soon after we got to Susak. We strolled for a time round the port, which has a brown matter-of-fact handsomeness, and then we drove off to Trsat, a village two or three miles up on the heights behind Susak, which is visited for the sake of the church and the Frankopan castle.

The castle is a compost of round and square towers, temples and dungeons and dwelling houses packed within battlements, under an excess of plants and creepers due to neglect rather than luxuriousness. The earliest masonry that has been found is Illyrian, and much is Roman, of the time of Julius Caesar. We climbed a Roman tower to see Susak lying brown by the blue sea, and the dark ravine that runs up from the town to split a mountain range on the high sky line.

We numbered seven, the little party that was exploring the castle: ourselves; a middle-aged Frenchman and his blonde soprano-ish wife; a German honeymoon couple, aggrieved and agonized as Germans often are nowadays at contact with foreigners; and a darkly handsome young man, a Dalmatian on holiday from some town farther down the coast, who had early detached himself and was seen only occasionally in the distance, a silhouette on the edge of the round tower after we had left it, or a shadow treading down the brambles at the entrance to the dungeons. We forgot him totally in a great wonder that came upon us when we were looking at the dwelling house made in the castle by an early nineteenth-century Austrian general of Irish birth, Marshal Nugent. The Nugents had the custom, like the English who live in the West Indies and the early settlers in the Southern States, of burying their dead on their premises. But whereas those other exiles buried their dead in their gardens, the Nugents put theirs in niches of the house, above ground, their coffins set upright behind slabs of marble.

That I found puzzling. The only people I have ever heard of as being buried upright are the ancient Irish, whose monotony of mind made them wish to be discovered at the Day of Judgment ready to face their enemies; but the Nugents are English by origin, and never saw Ireland till the days of Queen Elizabeth. But we soon forgot that bewilderment in another. The gardener was telling us that there was buried among the Nugents a stranger, a—something that he described in a rapid phrase which we could not at first grasp. Incredulously we repeated his phrase. "La zia de Signor Bernard Shaw?" "Si, signore." We still felt a need for verification, and repeated it in other languages. "La tante de Monsieur Bernard Shaw? Die Tante von Herr Bernard Shaw? Tetka Gospodja Bernard Shaw?" This was the hour for which Ollendorff has waited a hundred years. Always the gardener nodded; and there, on the tomb, which indeed had a blue-veined elegance not inappropriate to Bernard Shaw himself, was carved "Jane Shaw." But before we could find out how she came to be there the dark young man was suddenly amongst us again, shouting at the top of his voice.

He had found, it seemed, a notice behind some creepers on a wall, stating that the price of admission to the castle was five dinars, and we had all been charged ten. A dinar is about a penny; and I fancy that there was some reasonable explanation of the incident—the tariff had changed. But the young man was terribly enraged. All the resentment that most people feel in their whole lives is not greater than what he felt on this one point. "Zehn dinar!' he cried, speaking in German so that we might understand and collaborate with him in fury. "Zehn dinar ist zu viel, zehn dinar ist zu teuer, ist viel zu teuer!" He switched back to Serbo-Croat, so that he could make his accusation against the gardener with the unhampered vigor of a man using his native tongue. "You are an Austrian!" he screamed at him. "You are an Italian!" Rage ran through his whole body and out of his tongue. It was plainly an exercised gift, a precious function proudly developed. His gift mastered him; he could not endure the iniquity of this place; he had to leave us. Shouting protests to an invisible person, leaping higher and higher as if to keep in contact with his own soaring cries, he rushed away from us, away from the castle of the Frankopans.

"Maniac!" exclaimed the Frenchman. "Frightful!" said his wife. "Savage!" said the German couple. They were wrong. He was simply the product of Dalmatian history: the conquest of Illyria by Rome, of Rome by the barbarians; then three hundred years of conflict between Hungary and Venice; then four hundred years of oppression by Venice with the war against Turkey running concurrently for most of that time; a few years of hope under France, frustrated by the decay of Napoleon; a hundred years of muddling misgovernment by Austria. In such a shambles a man had to shout and rage to survive.


LET me try to understand the plight of this people—because this is a story that no Westerner can know of himself, no Englishman, no American. Let us consider what the Frankopans were. They are said to have been of Italian origin, to be affiliated with the Frangipani family of Rome, but that is almost certainly a late invention. They were typical Dalmatian nobles: of unknown origin, probably aliens who had come down on the Slavs when they were exhausted by barbarian invasions, and who were themselves of barbarian blood. Certainly they owed their ascendancy not to virtue or to superior culture, but to unusual stead-fastness in seeing that it was always the other man who was beheaded or tossed from the window or smothered. They lived, therefore, in an agony of fear. They were liable to armed attack by Vienna or Hungary if ever they seemed to be favoring one rather than the other. Their properties were temptations to pirates. Their followers, and even their own families, were themselves living in continual fear, and were therefore apt to buy their safety by betraying their overlord to his strongest enemy, so he could trust nobody. We know a great deal about one Count Ivan Frankopan, in the fifteenth century. He was the eldest of nine sons; the other eight all conspired against him. To protect himself he used a device common in that age of legalist division: he made the Venetian Republic his heir. Thus it was not to the advantage of his brothers or any other private person to assassinate him. But when he seized the fortresses of two of his brothers he found that they were protected by a similar testamentary precaution: they had made the Count of Hungary their heir. He fled across the sea to an island named Krk, which was his. Then he went mad. He conceived the idea that he must have an infinite amount of money to save him from disaster; he robbed his peasants of their last coins, and murdered refugees who landed on his island, in flight from the Turk, for the sake of their little stores. The Venetian Commissioner was ceded the island by its horrified inhabitants on condition that the poor lunatic be taken away.

The bare hills around the castle told us what followed: four centuries of selfish exploitation. Then, with the French occupation, there was hope. The gardener showed us with pride a neat nineteenth-century neoclassical temple, built with the fidelity to antique classicism that does not deceive the eye for an instant, so obvious is it that the builders belonged to a later civilization that had learned to listen to orchestral music and to drink tea from fine cups. There is a cross at the apex of the pediment and two well-bosomed matrons sit on its slopes, one decapitated by an idiot bomb dropped by one of D'Annunzio's planes when he was holding Susak's neighbor, Fiume.

Across the frieze of this temple is written "Mir Yunaka," which I translated to my husband perhaps more often than was absolutely necessary, for I am delighted with my minute knowledge of the Serbian language. "Peace to the Heroes," it means. This temple was erected during the French occupation which gave Dalmatia a peace for eight years. Eight years out of all time—no longer.

For in 1806 Napoleon had still much of his youthful genius. It made him take over this territory after he had defeated Austria, and found the two provinces of High and Low Illyria, which comprised Croatia and Dalmatia and Slovenia, as well as the Slav districts behind Trieste that are now Italian. He had the idea of forming a civilized Slav state, to include in time the Christian provinces of Turkey, which should make Southeastern Europe stable, pacific, and pro-French; he made Marshal Marmont the governor of these Illyrian provinces, and it was an excellent appointment. Marmont was an extremely competent and honorable man, though a self-satisfied prig, and he loved Dalmatia. His passion for it was so great that in his memoirs his style, by nature dropsically pompous, romps along like that of a boy when he writes of his Illyria. He fell in love with the Slavs, and defended them against their Western critics. They were not lazy, he said, indignantly; they were hungry. He fed them, and set them to build magnificent roads along the Adriatic, and crowed like a cock over the accomplishment. They were not savages, either, he claimed; they had had no schools, and he built them plenty. When he saw they were fervent in piety, he fostered their religious institutions, though he himself conceived faith as a buckram to stiffen the Army Regulations.

Marmont would have spent all his life in paternal service of Dalmatia had his been the will that determined this phase of history. But he could achieve less and less as time went on, and when he resigned in 1811 the commerce of the country was in ruins, the law courts were paralyzed by corruption, the people were stripped to the skin by tax collectors, and there was no sort of civil liberty. For he was only Marmont, a good and just and sensible man whom no one would call great. But none denied the greatness of Napoleon, who was neither good nor just nor sensible.

There is a school of historians today who claim with semi-erotic ardor that Napoleon's benevolence and wisdom never failed. It is hard to know how this view can survive a reading of his correspondence with Marmont on the subject of the Illyrian provinces. The style of his letters is curiously frivolous and disagreeable. By this time he had forgotten everything about his Empire except the crown. He showed complete indifference to the welfare of the French troops he had left in Dalmatia, and refused to sanction the expenditure Marmont insisted was necessary to keep them healthy in this barren coast of extreme weather, and he was completely unresponsive to Marmont's desire to build up a virile and loyal population and bring it into the fold of civilization. As time went on, he ignored Marmont's letters altogether, and his Exchequer grudged every halfpenny sent to Dalmatia. Finally, for no other purpose than pure offensiveness, he redrafted the constitution of the provinces and reduced the post of governor to a mere prefectship. Marmont could do nothing but resign and go back to the army. Yet he was a born colonial administrator, and this is one of the rarest forms of genius.

The men Napoleon sent to Dalmatia to replace Marmont prove his odd sluttishness. First was General Bertrand, who was later to share his Emperor's captivity on St. Helena. He deserved it for his treatment of the Dalmatians. To a race of mystics, who had been granted a special revelation of Christianity because they had had to defend it against Islam, he applied the petty and shallow prescriptions of French eighteenth-century anticlericalism. On these same mystics—who were also, though the West lacked the scholarship to know it, accomplished jurists, dowered with laws and customs springing from ancient tradition and beautifully adapted to local necessities—he forced the new legislative cure-all, the Code Napoleon. But Bertrand was far better than his successor. Junot, the Duke of Abrantes, brought his career to its only possible climax at the Governor's Palace in the delightful Slovenian town of Ljubljana. He gave a State Ball and came down the great marble staircase, under the blazing chandeliers, stark naked and raving mad.

But there was yet to come Fouche, the Duke of Otranto—one of the most pitiless butchers of the revolution, and in his capacity as Minister of Police the worst of all traitors, Judas only excepted. He loathed Napoleon yet loved him, was never loyal to him yet could never bring himself to betray him finally. There was here some nasty coquetry of spirit, some purulent corruption of love. Because his master was by then a beaten man, Fouche came out to Dalmatia in a yeast of loyalty, and indeed was inspired to glorious courage. In this far country, while Napoleon's future crumbled in the West, Fouche acted all day the secure administrator and dawdled through the routine of governorship, and by night worked with frenzy on the plans for evacuation. "Step by step, therefore, without losses," writes one of his biographers, "he withdraws to Venice, bringing away intact or almost intact from the short-lived Illyria its officials, its funds, and much valuable material." All very Marvelous; but not by any accountancy could it be judged honest to withdraw "funds and much valuable material" from that hungry country, which had beggared itself saving the West from the Turkish invasion.

I did not wonder that the young man shouted as he ran down the road, shouted as if he must go mad, did not the world at last abandon its bad habit and resolve into mercy, justice, and truth.

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