Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part IV

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.

Below us now lay the huge Austrian-built barracks, with the paddocks between them, and I remembered again what I had hated to speak of as we drove into Trebinje, when we were out to have an amusing morning. Here the Herzegovinians had found that one empire is very like another, that Austria was no better than Turkey. Between these barracks the Austrian Empire killed eighty people for causes that would have been recognized on no statute book framed by man since the beginning of time.

Then the news came in 1914 that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife had been assassinated by Serb patriots at Sarajevo, the Austrian authorities throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina arrested all the peasants whom they knew to be anti-Austrian in sentiment and imprisoned some and hanged the rest. There was no attempt at finding out whether they had been connected with the assassins—as, in fact, none of them were. Down there on the grass between the barracks the Austrians took as contribution from Trebinje seventy Serbs, including three women, such women as we saw in the market place. Someone I met in Sarajevo on my first visit to Yugoslavia had had a relative killed there, and had kept photographs of the slaughter which the Yugoslavian Government had found among the Austrian police records. They showed the essential injustice of hanging: the hanged look grotesque; they are not allowed the dignity that belongs to the crucified, although they are enduring as harsh a destiny. The women looked particularly grotesque, with their full skirts; they looked like ikons, as Constantine had said Slav women should look when dancing. Most of them wore an expression of astonishment. I remember one priest who was being led through a double line of gibbets to his own; he looked, not horrified, but simply surprised. That, indeed, was natural enough, for surprise must have been the predominant emotion of most of the victims. They cannot have expected the crime, for, though it was known to a large number of people, those were to be found only in a few towns, far away from Trebinje. When these victims heard of it they can never have dreamed that they would be connected with it.

'The scene was a typical illustration of the hypocrisy of empires, which pretend to be strong and yet are so weak that they constantly have to defend themselves by destroying individuals of the most pitiable weakness,' I said.

'But an empire,' my husband reminded me, 'can perform certain actions which a single nation never can. The Turks might have stayed forever in Europe if it had not been for the same combination of forces known as the Austrian Empire.'

'But there was no need for them to combine, once the Turks were beaten,' I objected. 'In the nineteenth century the Turks were hopelessly beaten, and the Porte was falling to pieces under the world's eye, yet the Austrians were flogging their peoples to keep them in subjection exactly as if there were a terrifying enemy at their gates.'

'Yes, but by that time there were the Russians,' said my husband.

'But Tsarist Russia was a rotten state that nobody need have feared,' I said.

'That, oddly enough, is something no nation ever knows about another,' said my husband. 'It appears to be quite impossible for any nation to discover with any accuracy the state of preparedness for war in another nation. In the last war both Great Britain and Serbia were grossly deceived by their ideas of what support they were going to receive from Russia; and Germany was just as grossly deceived by her ally Austria, who turned out to be as weak as water.'

'But how absurd the behavior of nations is!' I exclaimed. 'If I ran about compelling people to suffer endless inconveniences by joining with me in a defensive alliance against someone who might conceivably injure me, and never took proper steps to find out if my companions were strong enough to aid me or my enemies strong enough to injure me, I should be considered to be making a fool of myself.'

'But the rules that apply to individuals do not apply to nations,' said my husband. 'The situation is quite different.'

And indeed I suppose that I was being, in my female way, an idiot, an excessively private person, like the nurse in the clinic who could not understand my agitation about the assassination of lying Alexander of Yugoslavia. But it is just to admit that my husband was indulging his male bent in regard to international affairs, and was being a lunatic.


A Moslem woman walking black-faced in white robes among the terraces of a blossoming orchard, her arms full of irises, was the last we saw of the Herzegovinian plains; and our road took us into mountains at first so gruffly barren, so coarsely rocky, that they were almost squalid. Then we followed a lovely rushing river, and the heights were mitigated by spring woods, reddish here with the foliage of young oaks, that ran up to snow peaks. The river received tributaries after the astonishing custom of this limestone country, as unpolluted gifts straight from the rock face. One strong flood burst into the river at right angles, flush with the surface, an astonishing disturbance. Over the boulders ranged the exuberant hellebore, with its pale green flowers.

But soon the country softened, and the mountains were tamed and bridled by their woodlands and posed as background to sweet small compositions of waterfalls, fruit trees, and green lawns. The expression 'sylvan dell' seemed again to mean something. We looked across a valley to Tablanica, the Town of Poplars, which was the pleasure resort of Mostar when the Austrians were here, where their officers went in the heat of the summer for a little gambling and horse racing. Before its minarets was a plateau covered with fields of young corn in their first pale strong green, and orchards white with cherry and plum. We drove up an avenue of ash trees, bronze and gold with their late buds, and lovely children dashed out of a school and saluted as at a sign and wonder. We saw other lovely children later, outside a gypsy encampment of tents made with extreme simplicity of pieces of black canvas hung over a bar and tethered to the ground on each side. Our Swabian chauffeur drove at a pace incredible for him lest we should give them pennies.

A neat village called Little Horse ran like a looped whip round a bridged valley, and we wondered to see in the heart of the country so many urban-looking little cafes where men sat and drank coffee. The road mounted, and spring ran backwards like a reversed film. We were among trees that had not yet put out a bud, and from a high pass we looked back at a tremendous circle of snow peaks about whose feet we had run unwitting. We fell again through Swiss-like country, between banks blond with primroses, into richer country full of stranger people. Gypsies, supple and golden creatures that the window curtains of Golders Green had clothed in the colors of the sunrise and the sunset, gave us greetings and laughter. Moslem women walking unveiled towards the road turned their backs until we passed or, if there was a wall near by, sought it and flattened their faces against it. We came to a wide valley, flanked with hills that, according to the curious conformation, run not east and west or north and south, but in all directions, so that the view changes every instant and the earth seems as fluid and restless as the ocean.

'We are quite near Sarajevo,' I said. 'It is at the end of this valley.' Though I was right, we did not arrive there for some time. The main road was under repair and we had to make a detour along a road so bad that the mud spouted higher than the car, and after a mile or so our faces and topcoats were covered with it. This is really an undeveloped country; one cannot come and go yet as one chooses.

'Look,' I said, 'the river at Sarajevo runs red. That I think a bit too much. The pathetic fallacy really ought not to play with such painful matters.'

'Yes, it is as blatant as a propagandist poster,' said my husband.

We were standing on the bridge over which the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife would have driven on the morning of June 28, 1914, if they had not been shot by a Bosnian named Gavrilo Princip, just as their car was turning off the embankment.

We shuddered and crossed to the other bank, where there was a little park with a cafe in it. We sat and drank coffee, looking at the Pyrus japonica and the white lilacs that grew all round us, and the people, who were almost as decorative as flowers. At the next table sat a Moslem woman wearing a silk overall striped in lilac and purple and dull blue. Her long narrow hand shot out of its folds to spoon a drop from a glass of water into her coffee cup; here there is Turkish coffee, which carries its grounds in suspension, and the cold drop precipitates them. Her hand shot out again to hold her veil just high enough to let her other hand carry the cup to her lips. When she was not drinking she sat quite still, the light breeze pressing her black veil against her features. Her stillness was more than the habit of a Western woman, yet the uncovering of her mouth and chin had shown her completely unoriental, as luminously fair as any Scandinavian. Farther away two Moslem men sat on a bench and talked politics, beating with their fingers on the headlines of a newspaper. Both were tall, raw-boned, bronze-haired, with eyes crackling with sheer blueness: Danish sea captains, perhaps, had they not been wearing the fez.

We noted then, and were to note again and again as we went about the city, that such sights gave it a special appearance. The costume which we regarded as the distinguishing badge of an Oriental race, proof positive that the European frontier has been crossed, is worn by people far less Oriental in aspect than, say, the Latins; and this makes Sarajevo look like a fancy-dress ball. There is also an air of immense luxury about the town, of unwavering dedication to pleasure, which makes it credible that it would hold a festivity on so extensive and costly a scale.

This air is, strictly speaking, a deception, since Sarajevo is stuffed with poverty of a most denuded kind. The standard of living among the working classes is lower than even in our great Western cities. But there is also a solid foundation of moderate wealth. The Moslems here scorned trade, but they were landowners, and their descendants hold the remnants of their fortunes and are now functionaries and professional men. The trade they rejected fell into the hands of the Christians, who therefore grew in the towns to be a wealthy and privileged class, completely out of touch with the oppressed Christian peasants outside the city walls. There is also a Jewish colony here, descended from a group of Jews who came from Spain after the decrees of Ferdinand and Isabella and grafted themselves on an older group that had been in the Balkans from time immemorial; it has acquired great wealth and culture. So the town lies full-fed in the trough by the red river, and rises up the bowl of the blunt-ended valley in happy, open suburbs, where handsome houses stand among their fruit trees.

But the air of luxury in Sarajevo has less to do with material goods than with the people. They greet delight here with unreluctant and sturdy appreciation. They are even prudent about it; they will let no drop of pleasure run to waste.

It is good to wear red and gold and blue and green; the women wear them, and in the Moslem bazaar, which covers several acres of the town with its open- fronted shops, there are handkerchiefs and shawls and printed stuffs which say 'Yes' to the idea of brightness as only the very rich, who can go to dressmakers that are conscious specialists in the eccentric, dare to say it in the Western world. Men wash in the marble fountain of the great mosque facing the bazaar, and at the appointed hour prostrate themselves in prayer, with the most comfortable enjoyment of coolness and repose and the performance of a routine in good repute. In the Moslem cookshops they sell the great cartwheel tarts made of fat leaf-thin pastry stuffed with spinach which presuppose that no man will be ashamed of his greed and his liking for grease. The looks the men cast on the veiled women, the gait by which the women admit that they know they are being looked upon, speak of a romanticism that can take its time to dream and resolve because it is the flower of the satisfied flesh.

This tradition of tranquil sensuality is of Moslem origin, and is perhaps still strongest among Moslems, but also on Jewish and Christian faces there can be recognized this steady light, which makes it seem as if the Puritans who banish pleasure and libertines who savage her did worse than we had imagined. We thought of them as destroying harmless beauty, but here we learn to suspect that they throw away an instruction necessary for the mastery of life.

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