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Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) Mass Market Paperback – April 1, 1995

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Editorial Reviews Review

Part travelogue, part history, part love letter on a thousand-page scale, Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a genre-bending masterwork written in elegant prose. But what makes it so unlikely to be confused with any other book of history, politics, or culture--with, in fact, any other book--is its unashamed depth of feeling: think The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire crossed with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. West visited Yugoslavia for the first time in 1936. What she saw there affected her so much that she had to return--partly, she writes, because it most resembled "the country I have always seen between sleeping and waking," and partly because "it was like picking up a strand of wool that would lead me out of a labyrinth in which, to my surprise, I had found myself immured." Black Lamb is the chronicle of her travels, but above all it is West following that strand of wool: through countless historical digressions; through winding narratives of battles, slavery, and assassinations; through Shakespeare and Augustine and into the very heart of human frailty.

West wrote on the brink of World War II, when she was "already convinced of the inevitability of the second Anglo-German war." The resulting book is colored by that impending conflict, and by West's search for universals amid the complex particulars of Balkan history. In the end, she saw the region's doom--and our own--in a double infatuation with sacrifice, the "black lamb and grey falcon" of her title. It's the story of Abraham and Isaac without the last-minute reprieve: those who hate are all too ready to martyr the innocent in order to procure their own advantage, and the innocent themselves are all too eager to be martyred. To West, in 1941, "the whole world is a vast Kossovo, an abominable blood-logged plain." Unfortunately, little has happened since then to prove her wrong. --Mary Park


'Impossible to put down, both timeless and of its time... a travel book and epic narrative history brimming with passion, anger, scholarship and intuition, hatred and love.' Observer --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin
  • Mass Market Paperback: 1200 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (April 1, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140188479
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140188479
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 2.1 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (88 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #362,944 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

115 of 116 people found the following review helpful By Marc L. LeRoux on September 15, 2005
Format: Mass Market Paperback
I read BLGF after returning to the US after living in the region for over two years. I found and read Robert Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts," while the 1999 NATO action in Kosovo within clear sight of the situation. Kaplan made numerous positive referrences to BLGF so I found and read that soon after returning to the US. (I do know that Clinton did read BG (and that this led him to intervene in Bosnia-Herzegovina) and so may have read BLGF after leaving office). I suppose it was because of my very personal witness to the Balkans when I was living there, in particular the personal stories and lives that were generously offered by loving and almost pathetically nationalistic people. I found that RW, regardless of her "only six week" tour of Yugoslavia hit the button on the head in an overwhelming fashion. The personal emotional bias must be understood and the historical meat filtered through it. I didn't find that any history she related was false. What did startle me was how much similar her findings were to my own, fifty years later. When one understands that Tito effectively froze the populations of Yugoslavia in time through the use of forced migrations and a strong secret police force, how this could be becomes easy to grasp. But Rebecca West's journalistic intellect reaches its zenith when after witnessing the ritual slaughter of lambs, makes one of the best arguments against religion I have ever read. At once, she makes the best intellectual and emotional argument I can never have imagined as I read the brilliance of it. How a people come to act as both lambs and falcons, victims of history, myth and legend. The story of the Serbian people and for that matter the Balkans is something not to be missed by anyone interested in the story of civilization.Read more ›
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153 of 160 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey Leach HALL OF FAME on October 26, 2001
Format: Mass Market Paperback
Love it or hate it, anyone with an interest in the Balkans will eventually have to deal with this book. Rebecca West is one of the giants of 20th century literature. Never heard of her? I hadn't either until I read this sprawling opus. Don't be put off by the size of the book, however (West herself writes that most people probably won't read this book because of the massive length). Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a travelogue detailing West's travels through 1930's Yugoslavia. The book goes far beyond travelogue as West intersperses massive doses of Slavic history and philosophy with her travel accounts. Not only do we see the things she sees, we understand the mentality of the people. These people she meets and places she visits become almost mystical under her magical pen. I read this book over a six week period at the end of the summer. Like West on her travels, I meandered through the book, reading it religiously at times and then setting it down for a bit to read other things. This might be the best way to read the book. It allows the reader to absorb what West is trying to say without being overwhelmed by the immense amounts of information.
I have to say that I was most fascinated by her discourses on Yugoslav history. Balkan history can be a challenge because most of us in the West really don't understand the people or places involved. A section on the assassination of Franz Ferdinand runs on forever and never becomes boring. In fact, I became so enraptured of this event that I started reading other works concerning the assassination. Even though there are some problems with West's interpretation of history, her accounts are so well written that it makes the reader want to go out and read more about these events.
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76 of 78 people found the following review helpful By Stephen B. Selbst on September 7, 2004
Format: Mass Market Paperback
In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West weaves together history, ethnography and travelogue into an encyclopedic and unforgettable portrait of this troubled region. As I explain below, I think there are some marvelous things about this book, and some aspects that are less well realized. On balance, it is well worth the effort, but for somebody considering it, the cautions are worth noting. First the highlights:

West is at her best as a reporter. She has a truly brilliant eye for detail, for simply seeing how the people lived, what they wore, how they worshipped and what they did with their days. Her images, particularly of the remote communities and the many churches and religious shrines that she visited, are particularly well rendered. Although the book lacks photographs or drawings, West's very considerable talents for description are such that the reader really gets a feel for a large number of diverse places within the Balkans.

She also does an excellent job illuminating a great deal of the history of the region, both relatively modern history (meaning modern at the time the book was written -- 1941) and more ancient history. Modern history at the time West wrote meant dealing with the Balkan wars, the series of rebellions by which the vestiges of the Ottoman empire were overthrown in the 19th and early 20th centuries. West devotes particular attention to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, which precipitated World War I, an event that at the time of the writing of the book was still relatively recent in the world's memory, and the facts of which were still somewhat controversial.
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