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.
We had spent the morning going round the sights of the town with a Croat lady and Constantine, and over the soup we told Valetta how much we had liked her; and Constantine exploded: ‘I did not like her. She is not a true Slav. Did you hear what she told you when you were at the Health Cooperative Society Clinic? She said that all such things were very well looked after in the Austrian times. Yes, and she said it regretfully.’
‘Well, it was so,’ said Valetta.
‘Yes, it was so,’ said Constantine, ‘but we must not regret it. No true Slav would regret it. That is, no true human being would say it, for if a true human being is a Slav, he knows that to be a Slav is what is important, for that is the shape which God has given him, and he should keep it. The Austrians sometimes pampered you, and sometimes the Hungarians, so that each should play you off against the others. Benefits you get so are filth, and they spoil your shape as a Slav. It is better to have nearly nothing at all, and be a freeman with your brother Slavs.’
He paused, but Valetta was silent and went on eating. ‘Do you not think it is better?’ Constantine asked. Valetta nodded slightly. ‘Well, if you do not feel that strongly, you can feel nothing at all!’ said Constantine, a little louder. ‘Oh, yes, I feel it strongly,’ said Valetta, quite softly; and then, more softly still, ‘It would be much better for us to be freemen with our brother Slavs.’
For a moment Constantine was satisfied and went on eating. Then he threw down his knife and fork. ‘What is that you are saying? It would be better … you mean it is not so?’ ‘I mean it is not quite so,’ said Valetta. ‘How is it not so?’ asked Constantine, lowering his head like a bull. Valetta shrugged his shoulders. Constantine collapsed quite suddenly, and asked pathetically, ‘But are we not brothers, we Croats and Serbs?’
‘Yes,’ said Valetta. He was speaking softly, not—as a stranger might have thought—out of guile, but out of intense feeling. He was quite white. ‘But in Yugoslavia,’ he said painfully, ‘it is not so. Or, rather, it is as if the Serbs were the elder brother and we Croats the younger brother, under some law as the English, which gives the elder everything and the younger nothing.’
‘Oh, I know what you think!’ groaned Constantine. ‘You think that all your money goes to Belgrade, and you get hardly anything of it back, and we flood your country with Serb officials, and keep Croats out of all positions of real power. I know it all!’
‘You may know it all,’ said Valetta, ‘but so do we; and it is not a thing we can be expected to overlook.’
‘I do not ask you to overlook it,’ said Constantine, beginning to roar like a bull; ‘I ask you to look at it. You did not have the spending of your money before, when you were under Hungary. All your money was sent to Budapest, to landlords or to tax collectors, and you got some railways, yes, and some hospitals, yes, and some roads, yes, but not costing one half of your money, and you got also Germanization and Magyarization—you got the violation of your soul. But now you are a part of Yugoslavia, you are a part of the kingdom of the South Slavs, which exists to let you keep your soul; and to guard that kingdom we must have an army and a navy to keep Hungary and Italy in their places, and we must drain marshes and build schools and make military roads, and it is all for you as well as for us, but you will not see it!’
‘Yes, I see it,’ said Valetta, ‘but if you want to found a strong and civilized Yugoslavia you should have brought the Serb schools up to the Croat level, instead of bringing the Croat schools down to the Serb level.’
‘But now you show you see nothing at all,’ wailed Constantine. ‘It is a question of money! It is more important that one should have good schools everywhere than that one part of the country should have very good schools. A chain is as strong as its weakest link. What good is it to you in Croatia that your boys and girls can read Hindustani and paint like Raphael if the young men in Macedonia bang-bang indiscriminately all night because they do not know anything else to do?’
‘We might feel more confidence that our money went to build schools in Macedonia if it did not go through Belgrade,’ said Valetta. ‘You must forgive us for fearing that a great deal of it sticks in Belgrade.’
‘Of course it sticks in Belgrade!’ said Constantine, his voice going high, though it is low by nature. ‘We must make a capital. We must make a capital for your sake, because you are a South Slav!’
‘If it were only ministries and hotels that were being built in Belgrade, we Croats might approve,’ said Valetta, ‘but we understand that there are many private houses which are being built for people who have been connected with politics.’
‘It is not true—I swear it is not true,’ cried Constantine.
‘Are you telling me,’ asked Valetta, ‘that all Serb politicians and officials are honest?’
Constantine rocked in his seat. ‘I am all for chonesty,’ he said, giving the h its guttural sound; ‘I am a very chonest man.’ And that is true: during his life he has had the unquestioned administration of much money, and never has one penny stuck to his fingers. ‘And I admit,’ he continued heavily, ‘that in our Serbia there are sometimes people who are not chonest. But what could we do? There are not enough people in our country to take on the administration, so many of us were killed in the war. Ninety per cent,’ he wailed, ‘ninety per cent of our university students were killed in the war.’ That, too, I learned afterwards, is true.
‘Then why do you not draw on us Croats for officials?’ asked Valetta. ‘There are many Croats whom nobody in the world would dare to call untrustworthy.’
‘But how can we let you Croats be officials?’ spluttered Constantine. ‘You are not loyal!’
‘And how,’ asked Valetta, white to the lips, ‘can we be expected to be loyal if you always treat us like this?’
‘But I am telling you,’ grieved Constantine, ‘how can we treat you differently till you are loyal?’
It is an absolute deadlock; and the statement of it filled the heart with desolation. Constantine pushed away his plate and said, ‘Valetta, I will tell you what is the matter with you. Here in Croatia you are lawyers as well as soldiers. You have been good lawyers, and you have been lawyers all the time. For eight hundred years you have had your proces against Hungary. You have quibbled over phrases, you have wrangled about the power of your Ban, you have sawed arguments about regna socia and partes adnexae, you have chattered like jackdaws over your rights under the Dual Monarchy, you have covered acres of paper discussing the Hungaro-Croatian compromise. And so it is that you are now more lawyers than soldiers, for it is not since the eighteenth century that you have fought the Turks, and you fought against the Magyars only a little time. But now that we are making Yugoslavia we must feel not like lawyers but like soldiers; we must feel in a large way about the simple matter of saving our lives. You must cast away all your little rights and say that we have a big right, the right of the Slavs to be together, and we must sacrifice all our rights to protect that great right.’
When Valetta had left us Constantine said, ‘I do not know why you trouble yourself with that young man. He is not of importance; he is quite simply a Croat, a typical Croat.’ After a silence we came to the square in front of the cathedral, and he burst out again: ‘They do appalling things and they make us do appalling things, these Croats. When God works through the Croats he works terribly. I will tell you what once happened in the war. There was a hill in Serbia that we were fighting for all night with the Austrian troops. Sometimes we had it, and sometimes they had it, and at the end we wholly had it, and when they charged us we cried to them to surrender, and through the night they answered, “The soldiers of the Emperor do not surrender,” and it was in our own tongue they spoke. So we knew they were our brothers the Croats, and because they were our brothers we knew that they meant it, and so they came against us and we had to kill them, and in the morning they all lay dead, and they were all our brothers.’
We went up the hill and looked at the archaic statues on the porch of St. Martin’s Church, which is a battered old spiritual keep, rebuilt and rebuilt again and again since the thirteenth century. ‘Zagreb is the heart of Croatia,’ said Constantine, ‘and this old square is the heart of Zagreb. I think that only once did it fall, and then to the Tartars, to whom all fell. But now they have renamed it the square of Stefan Raditch, after the great leader of the Croat peasant party, who was shot in the Belgrade Parliament in 1928. Here in Croatia they say we Serbs did it, they say our King Alexander plotted it,’ said Constantine, his voice rising to a wail, ‘but it is not so. He was shot by a mad Montenegrin deputy whom he had accused of corruption. The Montenegrins are a Homeric people; they do not understand modern life; they think that if a man attacks your honor you kill him, and it is well. But the Croats do not know that, for they will never travel; they have no idea of going any farther than Dalmatia. And why would King Alexander want to kill Raditch? He knew very well that if Raditch were killed the Croats would go mad and would make with the Italians and the Hungarians to kill him also. And so they did. And that is a thing to remember, when the King is blamed for suspending the Constitution. Always King Alexander knew he would be killed. It is proof of the lack of magnetism of all you English Liberals that you forget that a man’s policy is a little different when he knows he is going to be killed.’
Down in the town we sat and drank chocolate in a cafe, till Constantine said, ‘Come, you must go. You must not keep Valetta waiting.’ Since he was staying in the same hotel as we were, and he looked tired, I said, ‘Come back with us.’ But he would not. ‘I will come later,’ he said, and I am sure he was afraid of meeting Valetta in the lounge and having to admit that Valetta wanted to see us but not him. The Serb, though he seems tough and insensitive, is sometimes childishly hurt by Croat coldness.
When we got to our hotel we found Valetta waiting for us, and we took him up to our room and drank plum brandy, pleased to see him again though we had seen him so recently. He stood by the window, pulled the curtains apart, and grimaced at the snow that fell aslant between us and the electric standards. ‘What a terrible Easter we have given you!’ he laughed, and raised his glass to his lips, smiling on us with the radiance that is usually the gift of traitors, but means nothing in him but kindness and good faith. He went on to apologize for the violence with which he had spoken at lunchtime. ‘I could not help it,’ he said. ‘I know that Constantine is a wonderful man, but he is all for Belgrade, and you will understand how we are bound to feel about that. I am so afraid that, as you are just passing through the country, you will not see what we Croats have to suffer. Of course everything is better since 1931, when the King gave us back some sort of Constitution; and since the King died it has improved still further. But it is still terrible.’ And he added sadly, ‘Our Clerical Party is very violent.’
The Croat Clerical Party has always worked with a motive power of anti-Serb hatred, which naturally created its material. The Serbs retorted with as bad as they got, and the Orthodox Church showed no example of tolerance to the Roman Catholics. The greatest of nineteenth-century Slav patriots of the pacific sort, Bishop Strossmayer, once announced his intention of visiting Serbia, and the Serbian Government had to make the shameful confession that it could not guarantee his personal safety. But the greatest stimulus to anti-Serb feeling has lain outside Croatia, in the Roman Catholic Church itself. During the last sixty years or so the Vatican has become more and more Ultramontane, more and more predominantly Italian in personnel; and since the war it has become more and more terrified of Communism. Can the Roman Catholic Church really be expected to like Yugoslavia? To like a state in which Croats, who used to be safely amalgamated with Catholic Austrians and Hungarians, are outnumbered by Orthodox Serbs, who are suspected of having no real feelings of enmity towards Bolshevist Russia?
An important indication of the pro-Italian and anti-Slav attitude of the Roman Catholic Church is her callousness towards the unhappy Slovenes who were incorporated in Italy under the Peace Treaty. These six hundred thousand people are one of the worst-treated minorities in Europe. ‘Have bugs a nationality when they infest a dwelling? That is the historical and moral position of the Slovenes living within our borders,’ once said the Popolo d’Italia. The 1929 Concordat which Pope Pius XI signed with Mussolini did not adequately protect the religious rights of the Slav minority, and the Slovenes no longer enjoy the right, which they prized highly, of using the Slovene liturgy in the Churches. The Slav so loves his language that this was a gesture of hostility to the Slav soul.
It is, therefore, not sensible to trust the Roman Catholic Croat to like and understand the Orthodox Serb, or even to discourage the artificial hatred that has been worked up between them in the past. ‘Do you not think, Valetta,’ said my husband, ‘that the Belgrade Government knows this, and therefore bargains with the Church, giving it assistance in its anti-Communist campaign on condition that it keeps the anti-Serb and Croatian Separatist movements within bounds?’
Valetta hesitated. ‘It may be so,’ he said, his long fingers fiddling with the fringe of a cushion.
‘And there is another thing,’ said my husband. ‘There is the present Concordat.’ He paused. In 1937 all the Serbian parts of Yugoslavia were up in arms because the Government had signed a Concordat with Pope Pius which gave the Roman Catholic Church immense advantages over the Orthodox Church: in any town where the Roman Catholics were in an absolute majority over the Serbs all the schools, without exception, were to be Roman Catholic; the child of a Roman Catholic mother and Orthodox father was to be brought up as a Roman Catholic even if the mother were received into the husband’s church; it was to be far easier for Roman Catholic soldiers to practise their religion than for the Orthodox soldiers, and so on. The terms were so grossly favorable to the Roman Catholics that the Government made it very difficult for the Serb public or for foreigners to obtain the text of the Concordat.
‘Yes,’ sighed Valetta, ‘this wretched Concordat. We none of us want it here, in Croatia, you know.’
‘Is it not the tragedy of your situation here,’ suggested my husband, ‘that you Croats are for the first time discovering that your religion and your race run counter to one another, and you are able to evade that discovery by putting the blame on the constitution of Yugoslavia? The Croats, like all Slavs, are a democratic and speculative people. You lived for long under the Hapsburgs, whom you could blame for every interference with individual liberty. Since the great pro-Croat Strossmayer was a bishop, you could even think of the Roman Catholic Church as the arch-opponent of the Hapsburgs, and therefore the protector of liberty. Now the Hapsburgs are swept away you should see the Roman Catholic Church as it is: not at all democratic, not at all in favor of speculative thought; far more alarmed by the vaguest threat of social revolution than by any actual oppression, provided it is of monarchical or totalitarian origin, and wholly unsympathetic with any need for free expression but its own. You should proceed to the difficult task of deciding whether you can reconcile yourself to this bias of the Church for the sake of the spiritual benefits it confers upon you. But you are postponing this task by letting the Church throw the blame for all its suppressions of free speech and free press on Belgrade.’
‘It is possible that you are right,’ said Valetta. ‘Nothing has any form here. Movements that seem obvious to me when I am in Paris or London become completely inconceivable when I am here in Zagreb. Here nothing matters except the Croat-Serb situation. And that, I own, never seems to get any further.’
‘But this is something very serious,’ said my husband, ‘for a movement might rush down on you here, say from Germany, and sweep away the Croat-Serb situation and every other opportunity for debate.’
‘You are perfectly right,’ said Valetta. ‘I know it; I know it very well. But I do not think anything can be done.’
They had got out of bed at an incredibly untimely hour to say good-bye to us at the railway station, the good Gregorievich and Valetta. They stood side by side on the platform, these two enemies, the early morning rain dripping on their turned-up coat collars. Valetta laughed and wriggled as the drops of water trickled down his neck, but Gregorievich merely bowed beneath the torrents. ‘Nothing is as it used to be,’ he said stoically; ‘even the seasons are changed.’
Politics, always politics. In the middle of the night, when there was a rap on our bedroom door, it was politics. ‘It may be a telegram,’ said my husband, springing up and fumbling for the light. But it was Constantine.
‘I am afraid I am late, I am very late. I have been talking in the cafes with these Croats about the political situation of Yugoslavia; someone must tell them, for they are quite impossible. But I must tell you that I shall be leaving tomorrow for Belgrade, very early, earlier than you will go to Sushak, for they have telephoned to me and say that I must go back; they need me, for there is no one who works so well as I. I would have left you a note to tell you that, but there was something I must explain to you. I have spoken not such good things of Raditch who was killed and of Matchek who is alive, — you had better put on your dressing gown for I will be some time explaining this to you, — but I want to make you understand that, though they are not at all clever men and cannot understand that there must be a Yugoslavia, they are honest. They would neither of them take money from the Italians and Hungarians. They and their followers would spit on such men as go to be trained in terrorism at the camps in Italy and Hungary. These were quite other men, let me tell you. …’
But for dear Valetta it is not all politics. He is a man of letters, he is a poet. What he could give the world, if there only could be peace in Croatia! But how is there to be peace in Croatia? Easily enough, if the Serbs of Yugoslavia could nerve themselves to grant Federalism on the Swiss model. That would change the twilit character of Croatian history. It would give the Croats a sense of having at last won a success; it would give their national life a proper form. But supposing Croatia got her independence, and the peasants found they were still poor, surely there would be a movement towards some form of social revolution; and surely then the bourgeoisie and the conservatives among the peasants would try to hand their country over to Hungary or Italy for the sake of stability. Surely, too, the Roman Catholic Church would be pleased enough if Croatia left its union with Orthodox Yugoslavia and became part of Italy. And if that happened there would be no more peace in Croatia, for either Gregorievich or Valetta. They are both true Slavs, and they would neither of them be able to tolerate Italian domination, first because it was foreign, and secondly because it was Fascist.
Suddenly they looked to me strange and innocent, like King Alexander of Yugoslavia in the first part of the film, as he was in the boat and on the quay at Marseille.
I pulled down the window so that I could see them better, my two dear friends who were each other’s enemies, who might yet be united to each other, far more closely than they could ever be to me, by a common heroic fate. I found myself obliged to pray to God that my friends should continue to be enemies, and as I prayed I canceled my faith, because I was incensed by the disgusting intricacy of life.
Part One: January 1941
Part Three: March 1941
Part Four: April 1941
Part Five: May 1941