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.
XXXVI

We ate too large a lunch, as is apt to be one's habit in Belgrade if one is man enough to stand up to peasant food made luxurious by urban opulence of supply and a Turkish tradition of subtle and positive flavor. Those soups and stews and risottos are as good as any I know. And the people at the tables round about one come from the same kitchen; rich feeding, not too digestible, but not at all insipid. Some of them, indeed, are definitely indigestible, beings of ambiguous life, never engaged in any enterprise that is crystalline in quality.

It is said that Belgrade is the centre of the European spy system, and it may be that some of these people are spies. One about whom such a doubt might be hardened came up to me while we were eating our chicken-liver risotto, an Italian whom I had last seen at a night club in Vienna. I remembered our meeting because of his answer to my inquiry as to what he was doing in Austria. 'I come from Spain, but I have never good fortune,' he said; 'I hoped to bring here a bullfight, but the bull, he will not come.' This did not, of course, refer to a startling example of animal sagacity, but to the change noticeable in the attitude of the customs officials as the animal passed from territories within the orbit of Cretan culture to those outside it. The unhappy beast had started on its journey as a symbol of life, glorious in the prospect of meeting a sacrificial death, and ended it as something like a fallen girl, to be rescued by bloodless humanitarians. Today when I asked the Italian a like question about his presence he made a more optimistic answer. 'I am about to take up very, very great concessions,' he said; 'a pyrites mine in Bosnia.' But I think the pyrites, 'he will not come.'

The vitality of these Yugoslavs to be seen at midday in this or any other big Belgrade hotel is in astounding contrast to any English gathering of the sort. It is one of the disagreeable features of English life that nearly all Englishmen are ill, and that the minority who are not are so surprised by their well-being that they acquire an illusion of superiority on all grounds and become 'hearties.' These Yugoslavs have never had an ache or pain in their lives. Yet all the historical factors involved should by rights have produced an opposite effect; for all the Yugoslavs over thirty-five must have taken part in a military campaign of the most appalling nature, and all adults below that age have undergone as boys privations and dangers such as never threatened French or English or German children.

I could understand why English diplomats, always the most delicate of a delicate class, hated being en poste among the Balkan peoples; but I could guess also at another reason why they should hate it. These Yugoslavs were not only very well, they were certain in any circumstances to act vigorously: and it would be impossible to foresee what form that action would take. In the Yugoslavian villages one felt certain of the peasants' vigor and the predictability of their conduct. They might be intensely individual in their emotions and their expression of them, but they would follow a tested tradition. Here one had no such certainty. These men in the hotel dining room were not united by the acceptance of any common formula. This gave them the alien and enigmatic character of wild animals: the lion and lioness drinking at the stream in the Kalemegdan were not more sealed from one in their feeling and thinking than these jolly, healthy men. I asked myself in vain, 'What will they do ?' And I asked myself also the more important question, 'what would they feel that they could not do?'

I remembered what English people who had lived in the Balkans had told me of dishonesty and punctilio, grossness and delicacy, avarice and handsomeness, coexistent in the same person; of statesmen who had practiced extremes in patriotism and in peculation, not at different times in their career, but on the same day; of brutality that took torture and bloodshed in its stride and suddenly turned to the tenderest charity. Surely this meant that not only I but the Yugoslavs were unable to answer the questions. They were not yet familiar with the circumstances of urban life.

Urban life takes a deal of learning. We saw further evidence of that when we went out to view the procession of children that always on this day, April 24, marches through the street along the ridge of Belgrade, to receive the blessing of the Patriarch at the Cathedral, which is near the park. We took up our places near the central square among a mob of infatuated parents, and languidly kind big brothers and sisters who were too old to walk in the procession, and bubbling and dancing little brothers and sisters who were too young and had for the most part been given balloons for compensation. There was a great deal of apprehension about, for every child had had new clothes bought for the occasion, and this worst of springs ranged drably overhead, sometimes spilling heavy pennies of rain —and the procession was forty minutes late.

All that was forgotten, however, every time one of the children in the crowd lost grip of his balloon, and we all saw it rise slowly, as if debating the advantages of freedom, over the wide trench of the cleared street. Then we all laughed when, as usually happened, since the wind was short of breath, the balloon wobbled and fell on the heads of the crowd on the other side of the road.

But in spite of all this good humor the occasion was not as pretty as we had hoped, because the little children were so remarkably fragile and pasty-faced. 'It is perhaps because they have been waiting so long in the cold,' suggested my husband. But that was not the reason, for the children who were walking briskly in the procession were just as pallid and dull of eye and hair. 'I cannot understand it!' I said. 'Why should the Serbs, who are so superbly healthy when they grow up, be such weakly children?' That was to say, in fact, that the Serbs had not mastered the technique of bringing up children in town.

'What a calamity it is that the Serbs consider it of such importance to have a great capital,' I said to my husband. 'Think of all the new ministries, and look at these poor teachers.' As remarkable as the pallor of the children was the neediness of their instructors.

They bore themselves with dignity, and their faces were for the most part thoughtful and dedicated. This was to be expected, for the profession of teacher offers not the steady job which the peasant longs for above all else when he leaves the soil, but a special heroic prestige. Before the Balkan wars all the young bloods of both sexes with a turn for letters took teaching diplomas and went down to Old Serbia and Macedonia, which were still Turkish provinces. The Great Powers had forced Turkey to permit the establishment of schools with foreign staffs for the benefit of the Christians among these subjects; but the result was hardly what could have been expected from such a benevolent intervention. No area since the world began can have been at once so highly educated and so wildly uncivilized.

Macedonia was important to all Europe because a power that got a foothold there had a chance of falling heir, by actual occupation or by economic influence, to the territories of the dying Ottoman Empire. So the land was covered with schools staffed by nationalist propagandists, who, when they hailed from the neighboring Balkan powers, took their duties with more than normal pedagogic ferocity. Serbia and Bulgaria and Greece all founded schools which aimed at making the Macedonian infants into Serbs or Bulgars or Greeks who could be counted on to demand the transfer of the province to whatever state had secured their adherence. Quite a number of the schoolmasters and schoolmistresses in these competitive establishments were shot, or were not shot only because they shot first. This situation was not wholly ended by the war. So the teachers in Yugoslavia are often heroes and fanatics, as well as servants of the mind; but as they walked along the Belgrade streets it could easily be seen that none of them had quite enough to eat or warm enough clothing or handsome lodgings or all the books they needed.

XXXVII

It must be admitted that this city, with its starved professional classes, its lavish governmental display, and its pullulation of an exploiting class, sometimes presents an unattractive appearance. I did not like Belgrade that evening when I sat in the hotel lounge and watched the bar fill up with high- colored, thick-necked, stocky little men, whose black moustaches were lustreless as ape's hair. There had been some sort of conference upstairs in a private room, with two foreign visitors, one pale and featureless and round, like an enormous Dutch cheese, the other a Jew as Hitler sees his people. I think the dreams raised at that conference would never be realized in all their rosiness. No party was going to be left, as the others hoped, with the horns and the hoofs as his share of the carcass. But everybody would do pretty well except the general public here and in the rest of Europe, who were going to provide the carcass.

The extent of the damage that is done to the state by its financial and industrial adventures is not easy to compute. I do not believe that it is nearly so much in terms of money as the Yugoslavs outside Belgrade allege. The great fortunes in Yugoslavia come from shipping and timber. There may be some large villas in Belgrade whose owners could not explain how they came to be able to build them; but then there are very few large villas in Belgrade. Nor are there many large cars, or expensive restaurants, or jewelers, or furriers. It looks to me as if all the city's speculators absorbed a much smaller proportion of their country's goods than England and the United States. But to a community of peasants it may well seem that such rewards for the middleman are altogother exorbitant; and indeed the political consequences of such a privateering strain in society are altogether disastrous for a new country.

If the politicians of a state are dominated by ideas, then few parties form. There are certain natural classifications which establish themselves: those who are for repression and those for freedom, those who are for the townspeople and those for the peasants, those who are for the army and those for finance and industry, and so on. Sometimes these groups stand sharply defined and sometimes they coalesce into fewer and larger groups. But there is only a limited number of such class)fications, and of the combinations that can be formed from them. But if there are a thousand financiers and industrialists in a country, they can, especially when they are Slavs, turn political life into a multiplicity of small slippery bodies like a school of whitebait. In the ten years after the granting of the Yugoslavian constitution in 1921, twenty-five different governments held office. There is nothing more necessary for the country than a steady agrarian policy; there have been as many as five Ministers of Agriculture in thirteen months.

It was to end this gangsterish tumult that King Alexander took the disastrous step of proclaiming a dictatorship in l909. This introduced what seemed to be a change for the better, but most Yugoslavs would say that it produced no change at all, for it ultimately put into the saddle Stoyadinovich, who was hated throughout the length and breadth of the country. That hatred was extraordinarily widespread. He was hated chiefly because he was said to be a tyrant and enemy of freedom.

Whether Stoyadinovich imprisoned many people or not was hard for a stranger to tell. My impression was that the regime was far more indulgent than German Naziism or Italian Fascism. I have heard malcontents loudly abuse the government freely w hen sitting in a cafe or by an open window giving on a lane, and I have often received through the ordinary post letters in which my Yugoslav friends abused the Prime Minister and signed their names. I have been told several stories of atrocities which on investigation turned out to be either completely untrue or exaggerated.

But sometimes the hand of Stovadinovich fell very heavily indeed. It sometimes fell vexatiously on the intellectuals. I have known of a provincial lawyer of the higllest character who was sent to prison for two months for treasonable conversation on the evidence of an ignoble personage who had before the war been an Austrian spy in Belgrade. The real damage done to the intellectuals lay not in the number of such cases or the severity of the sentences, but in the insecurity arising from the knowledge that they could happen at all. But I believe that the hand fell with a murderous heaviness on the working classes. An English friend of mine once traveled with a party of young men being sent down from a Bosnian manufacturing town to Sarajevo by a night train. All were in irons. The gendarmes told him that they were Communists. I expect they were nothing of the sort. Real Marxian Communism is rare in Yugoslavia, for it is not attractive to a nation of peasant proprietors and the Comintern wastes little time and energy in this field, but the word is extended to cover the mildest of Left activities. These young men had probably done nothing worse than try to form a trade union. It was against such as these, I believe, that the Stoyadinovich regime brought up its full forces.

Consideration of this bias brought one to the reason that the more serious-minded among the Yugoslavs gave for their hatred of Stoyadinovich. They knew that their abominable prison systerm could not be reformed in a moment, they knew that they were often difficult and ungracious under government. But they could not forgive him for representing the thick-necked, plundering little men in the bar. Those men were his allies, and they were united against the rest of Yugoslavia. He was against the peasants, against the starving schoolmasters, against the workmen who had been brought to town and poverty like lambs to the slaughter.

It is plausible, yet I do not think it is true. Certainly Stoyadinovich represented the financial and industrial interests of Belgrade, but he may not have meant to be his country's enemy. I have known Englishmen and Frenchmen who have done business with him, and they all received honest, even handsome treatment at his hands, which seemed to be part of a certain Augustan attitude, hardly consonant with carelessness for his country's interest. The truth is, I suspect, that he was astonishingly naïve, and that his naïveté was cut to an old-fashioned pattern. The clue to that was supplied every evening to anybody who would listen to it by the radio. I have never turned on the radio in Yugoslavia without hearing a full account of everything the Prime Minister had done on the previous day, delivered in accents that would have been appropriate had he been a commander in chief that had just escorted an invading army over the frontier.

I felt a rush of dislike towards the men in the bar. I detected in them a strong resemblance to certain types found in Western cities during the last century, to pictures representing the financial adventurers who dominated Paris under the Second Empire, to the photographs of City men which can be seen in the illustrated papers of the nineties, named as founders of enterprises not now extant. Idiotically, they were not only copying a system that was far from ideal, but imitating those who had proved incapable of grasping such success as the system offers.

Belgrade, I thought, had made the same error. It had till recently been a Balkan village, which had its character, of resistance, of determined survival, of martyred penury. This was a very sacred Balkan village; the promontory on which it stood had been sanctified by the blood of men who had died making the simple demand that, since their kind had been created, it might have leave to live. Modern Belgrade has striped that promontory with streets that had already been built elsewhere much better. I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia. For a century Serbia had been exposed to the peculiar poisons of the nineteenth century. I had perhaps come a long way to see a sunset which was fading under my eyes before a night of dirty weather.

But some of this threatened degeneration was still a long way from consummation. This hotel may have longed to slip off its robust character and emulate the Savoy and the Crillon and the Plaza; but its attempt was not well under way as yet. A newcomer had arrived in the bar; the stocky little men were now greeting with cries of love and trust another of the kind who would have betrayed them for about the sum that would have made them betray him, lifting their glasses to him and slapping him on the back with the exaggeration of children playing the game 'in the manner of the word.' That I might have seen in London or Paris or New York. But in none of those great cities have I seen hotel doors slowly swing open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms. He took up his place beside the news stand where they sold Pravda and Politika, the Continental Daily Mail, Paris-Soir, the New York Herald Tribune. He was a well-built young man, with straight fair hair, high cheekbones, and that look of blindness which comes from its antithesis, from abnormally clear sight. His suit was in the Western fashion, but he wore also a sheepskin jacket, a round black cap, and leather sandals with upturned toes; and to his ready-made shirt somebody had added some embroidery. He looked about him as if in search of someone. Twice he went to the door of the bar and peered at the faces of the stocky little men, so it was plain that he was waiting for one of their kind; and indeed the middle class in Yugoslavia is so near to its peasant origin that any of them might have had such a cousin or nephew. But the one he sought was not there, so he went back to his place by the news stand. He stood still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms, its eyes sometimes flashing as it turned like small flat luminous plates.

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