Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Part V

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.
More
XXXI

WE were going to see the village outside Sarajevo where the Austrians built a race course and where Franz Ferdinand stayed the night before he died. The road was so extravagantly bad that we bounced like balls, and Constantine had a star of mud on his forehead as he told us, 'Sarajevo has a soul like a village, though it is a town. Now, why has it the sort of soul that it has? In Sarajevo,' he continued, as the car lifted itself out of a rut with a movement not to be expected from a machine, credible only in a tiger leaping out of a pit, 'Slavs —and a very fine kind of Slav, endowed with great powers of perception and speculation —were confronted with the Turkish Empire at its most magnificent, which is to say Islam at its most magnificent, which is to say Persia at its most magnificent. Its luxury we took, its militarism and its pride, and above all its conception of love. The luxury has gone. The militarism has gone. You have seen what has happened to the pride. But the conception of love is still in the city, and it is a wonderful conception; it refreshes and revivifies—it is clean water and strong wind.'

'What is peculiar about this conception of love?' asked my husband, who had just been thrown on his knees to the floor of the car.
'It is,' said Constantine, failing to remove his stomach from the small of my back, 'the conception of love that made us as small boys read the Arabian Nights with such attention, so that Grandmamma always said, "How he reads and reads! We must make a priest of him." Is it not extraordinary, by the way, that all over Europe, even in the chaste nurseries of your own country, this should be regarded as a children's book? It is as if our civilization felt fear that it had carried too far its experiment of bringing up children in innocence but would not admit it, and called in another race to administer all the knowledge which had been suppressed in an exotic and disguised form, so that it can be passed off as an Eastern talisman engraved with characters which naturally cannot be read, though they are to be admired &aeligsthetically.'

'About this conception of love,' said my husband, struggling up to a seated position and wiping the mud off his glasses. 'You mean the old women arriving with messages and the beautiful women in darkened rooms, and the hiding in jars?'

'Yes, that is it,' said Constantine. 'It is a conception of love which demands that it should be sudden and secret and dangerous. It seems to you that a man insults a woman if he wishes to make love to her without delay, and that a woman is worthless if she gives herself to a man before they have killed a great part of the calendar. Love may be as slow as the growth of a plant: a man and woman may come throughout many months to a full understanding of each other's natures and take serious vows to fulfill each other's needs. But there is also another love, so ecstatic that it could come into full being at a single encounter, that it would need only that encounter to satisfy the lovers.

'If you offered them a lifetime together you could not offer them more than the night that follows when the old woman has opened the door. —No, the car is not going to turn over. And when you come back next year the road will be better. We are a young country, and we will do all, but we have not yet had the time. Such love could properly be engendered by a single glance from the eyes. Indeed it could not claim to be this kind of love, this ultimate affinity, if the most infinitesimal contact were not enough to declare it. That is why it must be sudden.

'It must be secret because jealousy is a part of both this sudden love and the other slow-moving kind. A man who performs the miracle of keeping a woman happy for forty years cannot bear it that on one night during those forty years another man should be necessary for her happiness; and a man who meets a woman once and makes that meeting as fabulous in her memory as a night spent in the moon cannot bear it that he should not be the father of the eleven children whose noses she wipes. Hence these men must not know of each other. We roar like bulls about our honor, but so it is.

'Also this love must be dangerous, or it would not be itself. That is not to say that one does not value a thing unless one has paid a great price for it —that is vulgar. But if a woman did not know that to lift her veil before a stranger was perhaps to die she might perhaps lift it when she had received no intimation of this great and sudden love, when she was merely barbarian. And indeed neither she nor her lover could fully consummate this kind of love without a sense of peril. They would not shut the eyes of reason and precipitate themselves into the abyss of passion unless they knew: this might be their last chance to experience it —or, indeed, anything else.

'It is a more marvelous conception of love, I think, than anything other nations know. The French make love for the sake of life; and so, like living, it often falls to something less than itself, to a little trivial round. The Germans make love for the sake of death; as they like to put off civilian clothes and put on uniform, because there is more chance of being killed, so they like to step out of the safe casual relations of society and let loose the destructive forces of sex. So it was with Werther and Elective Affinities, and so it was in the years after the war, when they were so promiscuous that sex meant nothing at all. And this is not to speak ill of the French and Germans, for the love of life and the love of death are both necessary things. But this conception unites love and life in a single experience. The men and women in it have another dimension given to their lives, because they have kept in their hearts the capacity for this second kind of love. They are not mutilated by its suppression, and they have hope. All of them may yet have this revelation, and some of them have actually had it. I think that is why so many of the women here have lips and eyes that shine like children's, and why the men are not bitter or grudging or hurried.

'A sensuality that is also a mysticism,' he cried, 'what can a race invent better for itself? But here is Ilidze! Here is our marvelous Ilidze! ' He leaped in one second from well-buttered reverie to shaking indignation. 'Ilidze, our Potemkin village! They built it to show the foreign visitors how well they had imposed civilization on our barbarism, just as Potemkin built villages on the steppes to impress the foreign ambassadors with Russian prosperity: hollow villages that were built the day before and were pulled down the day after. Come, look at their civilization, at our barbarity!'

The spa waited for us behind the scrubby, half-forested edge of a park, and indeed it was not pleasing. In earlier days it had certainly been better kept; it now looked like any of the other Yugoslavian spas, which are patronized by the peasants and small shopkeepers, and showed a certain homely untidiness, though nothing worse. But the place was unengaging in its architectural essence. A string of shapeless hotels were joined by a covered corridor to a central restaurant and pump room, a pudding of a place. Every building was smothered in heavy porches and balustrades and balconies of craftless but elaborate woodwork. The hotels were all closed at the moment; they did not open till the heat brought people out of the city. We strolled about looking for the proprietor of the Hotel Bosnia, the largest of the hotels, at which Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek had spent their last night.

'I think they have kept the chapel that was made for their coming,' said Constantine, 'and I know they keep their room as it was, for I have seen it. It was the suite reserved always for the Royal Family and for the governor, and it was altogether Moslem, but a terrible Moslem. It was like a place I saw in your London when I was there for five days during the war, called the Kardomah Cafe —all little inlaid tables and a clutter of many things, whereas, as you have seen, the chief furniture of a Moslem house is the light. But here is a man with keys.'

They fitted, however, only the door of a little shop in the Hotel Bosnia's arcade; but the man was glad to have a talk. 'He says,' said Constantine, 'that they do their best to keep the place neat, but there is not enough money to do much. Many people come here in summer, but they are not rich, like the nobles who used to come here from Austria and Germany and England to see how beautifully Bosnia was being governed by the Austrian Empire. He would not have it different, however, though he has been here since a child and loves the place, for he is a very patriotic Yugoslav. But really it is disgusting, this Ilidze. They did nothing for the country, but they built these hotels and the race course which I am going to show you presently, and all the grand people came and looked at it and said, "Ah, it is so in Bosnia, all weeded gravel paths and new houses and good beer; it is too good for these cattle of Slavs."' He mimicked the tone of a fine lady, turning his face from side to side and twirling an imaginary open parasol.

The man with the keys had been watching. He suddenly threw down his keys on to the pavement and began to shout straight past us to the horizon: like the young man at Trsat, like the young man on the boat whose soup was cold. 'Yes, yes!' he cried. 'And they had our men and women brought in to dance the kolo for them. We were for them the natives, the savages, and we had to dance for them as if we were bears at a fair.' He bent and picked up the keys, then remembered something and threw them down again. 'And what they did to us as soldiers! They made us become soldiers, and when a man goes into battle he may be called before his God, and they made us Christians wear the fez! Yes, the fez of the accursed Turks was the headgear of all our four Bosnian regiments!'

He picked up his keys for the second time and led us along the corridor to the railway station, which indeed was very grand, in the manner of Baden-Baden or Marienbad. 'I find this grotesquely unpleasing,' I said.

'I did not bring you here to please you,' said Constantine. 'When I take you to see things that were left by the Turks and the Austrians it is not to please you —it is so that you shall understand. And now will you please look where I tell you? This station is very untidy, is it not? The paint has gone and there are no flowers growing in wire cases. Will you please look at the chestnut tree that stands in the middle of this piece of gravel outside the station? Do you see that there are growing round it many weeds? Now, I apply a test. If you are saved, if you know what the soul is and what a people is, you will be able to see that that tree is better now, standing among weeds, than it was when it was spick-and-span. For those weeds are the best we can do, they are all the order we can yet attain in Bosnia; and the spick-and-spanness came from another people, and was therefore nothingness —it could not exist here, because it was not part of the national process.'

'There I cannot agree,' I said. 'I do not believe that it was wrong of the English to drain India and abolish suttee. I do not believe that the P&egraveres Blancs did wrong in medicining the sicknesses of Africa.'

'Do I not know such things must be done?' said Constantine. 'We Yugoslavs are stamping out malaria in Macedonia and we are raising up peasants that have been trodden into the mud by the Turks. But it should be done by one's people, never by strangers.'

'Rats!' said my husband. 'If a people have wholly gone under, without a fringe that has kept its independence and its own folk ways, strangers must butt in and help it get on its feet again. The trouble is that the kind of stranger who likes helping unfortunate people usually does not get leave to set about it unless other members of his group see a military or commercial advantage to be got out of it. But if you mean that the Bosnians had enough force and enough remnants of the old Slav culture to look after themselves once they got the Turks off their necks, and that the Austrians had nothing to give them and had no business here, then I'm with you.'

'Ah, you have said something true, and so untidy,' complained Constantine, 'and what I said was so beautifully neat.'

But it was where the race course drew its white diagram on the gardeny plains that the irrelevance of the Austrian intervention appeared most apparent. The scene was now enchanting. All over the course, sheep and cattle were grazing on the turf, ringing faint little bells as they were pressed on by greed slow-moving as abstinence or met the active air, not quite a wind, which flowed quietly down the great tawny valley that led back to Sarajevo. Where there was not grass, the earth showed red, and the poplars stood like jets of chill green-gold light. Scattered on the plains were the rough white farms and cottages of Christians; and on every slope which promised a fine view there stood a Moslem villa, smoothly and solidly white among the white clouds of its orchard. One such villa stood on a little hill close by the race course, as compact a delight as if an enormous deal of Spring had been boiled down till it would fill just a little pot, according to the method of making rose-leaf jam.

And the white rails, of course, recalled another delight. I saw a string of horses going like a line of good poetry, under a roofless morning on Lambourn Downs. I remembered what the author of the Book of Job had said about the horse: 'The glory of his nostrils is terrible. He paweth in the valley, and rejoiceth in his strength..... He saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha; and he smelleth the battle afar off, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting.' A pleasure, undoubtedly, but how irrelevant to the starving Bosnian peasant, and how irrelevant, how insolent to Sarajevo!

The scenery before me was distressing in its evocation of Austrian society as it was in the time of Franz Josef, as Metternich had foreseen it must become if the Empire were not allowed some measure of freedom. Banality rose from the tomb and stood chattering about the lawns: women with heavy chins and lively untender eyes and blond frizzes of hair under straw boaters, wearing light blouses and long skirts and broad waistbands; men with the strongly marked expressions of ventriloquists' dummies, with sloping shoulders and ramrod backs. They chattered loudly, with the exaggerated positiveness of those who live in a negative world. They were bound by etiquette and recognized no discipline; they were the descendants of connoisseurs, yet neither produced nor appreciated great art; they sacrificed all civil interests to a military caste that proved as soon as war broke out to be wholly civilian in everything but its splendid, suicidal valor.

These people had come to govern, to change, to civilize such men and women as we had seen in Sarajevo: the Jews with their tradition of fine manners and learning; the Moslems with their houses full of light and their blossoming gardens and dedication to peaceful nature; the old women we had seen in the market place, whose souls had attained to wit; the men whose long strides were endurance itself, who would know, like our friend with the keys, that an honest man must not dance before tyrants.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

What makes a story great? The storytellers behind House of CardsThis American LifeThe Moth, and more reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In