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149 of 151 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Been there, done that, then read BLGF, September 15, 2005
This review is from: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (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.

I lived in Slovenia in the late 1990s for over two years, serving the public in concert with a Slovenian orthopedic surgeon. I was married there in 1999 before returning to the US. As one deeply drawn to historic studies since childhood, I carried along with me, a small library of historic works on European history, including the very large History of the Habsburg Empire, published by the Berkeley University Press. I traveled to many regions, but more importanly, had (and still retain) friends who are Slovene, Serb, Bosnian Serb as well as acquaintances of some in higher government and military offices. At one point, I was even invited to an informal meeting of (Ljublijana) university professors and a Croatian UN Bosnia-Herzegovina Peacekeeper mission executive. I was present to witness the development of the problems in Kosovo and led to the Bombing Campaign in 1999. I saw the protests against it that took place in front of the US Embassy in Ljublijana as I went there for the settling of various matters so I could be married in Slovenia legally. My dear, loving Serbian receptionist was symbolically blocking the entrance with other protestors. And later that day we met at the office and worked with only the slightest bit of simmering resentment, so deep was our care for one another. Through her, I learned so much, and on a later return, attended a Serbian Orthodox service as her guest, just to get a deeper feeling of the history of these people. It was very moving. People torn between the most generous loving inclinations with a rare love of life and at the same time, mutilated by a long history of oppression. They see themselves alone with the world against them. This same friend was also in the crowd in Belgrade that finally brought down Milosevic. All attempts to understand and find the tortured human element in Serbs is an obligation for us. And doing so does not require that we denigrate or minimalize the Albanians or any other of the ethnic groups in the Balkans. BLGF so enriched by complement, all these experiences. When I return, I do so with a greater and greater depth of knowledge and tolerance for all, regardless of the minefields of strong nationalistic sentiments one must step through to do so.

What makes BLGF so great and a must read for anyone remotely interested in history or literature in general is that it is at once an excellent source of introductory history of a region that has been for the West, lost in a mist of vagarities and myth. At the same time related as a personal experience by RW in a almost lyric fashion. Go with it, even the angry diatribes about men. History becomes real when it is felt as a personal experience; That is why traveling and living abroad is so valuable for everyone, but especially for Americans, who need to understand the world that their government so often effects. If there is anyplace in the world that can teach us that nothing is simple and perhaps most important, impress the American reader with the eternal sense of history, expanding that compression of time that US history lives in, the Balkans are it. This is a book that ought to be used at least at the community college class level in both literature and history classes.

I have read many of the reviews and various opinions on this book, including the one critic living in the region who only allowed one star. (Locals hate outsiders having any opinion of them). My view is that all the praises and criticisms are valid and deserved, even the one that questions whether RW and her husband had any kind of sexual realtionship and if her husband might have actually been homosexual. Without doubt, RW was a strong willed individual and I gathered from her occassional diatribes concerning men that she had a issue with the entire gender and completely capable of a "marriage of convenience." (So what)? Realizing that her father had left her mother and then soon died, must be somewhat to blame. Allow her to be human, it made her what she was as a writer. So although I found her rants less than usefull, I allowed her to be human because this book is part journal, part essay and part diary. How many authors have laid their own feelings out so clearly. Given the period that it was published in, that took courage. I have to wonder with our emotionally suppressive PC enviroment today, how could anyone even conceive such writing today and not be shouted down by the "thought police" installed in their own mind? Welcome to journalism before PC! What a gift that is in itself - an artifact of true intellectual freedom.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 13, 2010 4:45:53 PM PDT
J says:
In regards to the comments regarding West's feminist tendencies and her relationship with her husband, the current copy (at least the one I own), discusses a long-distance affair - at least one of emotional sorts - that she was having during the time of the trip, which led her to distance herself from her husband. Several letters and her personal diary that she kept on the trip were what later revealed this. The copy I own also tells who her husband actually was and that she was later married or partnered I believe with HG Wells (?) and had a son with him. I'm not certain though because I am actually living in Hungary at the moment and my copy is in the US... As a woman, I found West's variety of feminism rather refreshing (though it may seem dated to some) because it meets a truer form - and she has her own criticisms about women as well! Her observations on this level often made me laugh out loud - so maybe you have to be a woman to understand some of these tangeants - though I'd hate to pose a gender bias on these few pieces of herself that she reveals to us. In my mind, she is a refined yet critical woman.

I've seen it noted in several comments that West wrote this book based on a 6 week tour - and would like to correct that indication, that her inital visit was a 6 week tour and she was so enthralled with the region and knew she wanted to write the book, so she specifically went back a year or two later for a period of 3 months to immerse herself further and build upon or correct her first impressions. This 3 month period is the time period that we are privy to in her travel-documentary-historiographical piece and is also distinguished in the preface of the copy I own. (I bought it at Borders but it's the same one that appears above. I too first heard of this book by reading Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts" and finally had to get this book. I am just as enthralled with it as Kaplan was.)

While it seems that the commentator above lived in the region directly corresponding to the fall of communism, I must stress that young people today (20 years later) are much more enthused to hear about this book if they haven't already read it. Though I'm living in Hungary, I have interactions with many young people from the region. West IS a bit biased - the largest bias is noted also in a commentary in the preface of the book of West's preference for Serb nationalism and sentiments that lean towards their favor - this of course was before the 90's war. However, I find this extremely helpful because people by nature have preferences. When you understand the passions that underlie the tensions in the region, it makes current events so much more lucid in their current renderings not for their poignant atrocities against mankind (on multiple sides) but for the histories that lies beneath this exacerbation.

Here is my comment on the book that I've posted on the Border's website:
"Rebecca West captures the imagery and vitality of the diverse peoples and complex histories that are the Balkans. Yugoslavia has never been the same as it was in the time she wrote it but her book engages, allures and entices one to experience it all first-hand, and seek it out today. Her descriptions make you smell the mountain air, taste the spray of the sea and feel the passion of the people you meet. Dynamic, brilliant, she brings forth culture and history to the understanding needed in the present, as much today as then, giving her own academic travel-documentary flair - she is academic - but she is writing a journal so to speak, taking you on journeys of her own and journeys that began long before her time. She never encountered Communism in practice in Yugoslavia (as this is pre-WWII), so there is an optimism of the political ideologies there, but she draws you to the unspoilt world of cultural crossroads before the tragedies of the 20th century - do not mistake that the Balkans are full of tragedies, all with their own histories, but they so beautiful and pure in her depiction. She offers us a perspective to greater understanding to histories that are no longer taught, the bigger history of Europe and perhaps ourselves, enlarging the history we know, always with philosophical intorspection. It is also impossible to comprehend the work she succeeded without the resources we have today. Fully and beautifully alive with wit, humor, tact, truth, history, scenery and the experience of the people themselves - Truly Enjoy!!!"

Posted on Jul 29, 2014 7:56:12 PM PDT
Chimonsho says:
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Posted on Mar 24, 2015 1:16:00 PM PDT
MGKAL says:
A moving and informative review!

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2015 1:22:18 PM PDT
MGKAL says:
Many noteworthy observations expressed with insight and a passion for learning!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2015 10:08:11 AM PDT
It is clear in the book and known well otherwise that RW had an affair with HW Wells before she married her final husband. It did seem to be more of a marriage of convenience to me, but it's been a while since I paid attention to RW or this book.

I lived in the Balkans for over two years and I still feel that there was much more to learn of the history and cultures. Robert Kaplan lived there for six years while he wrote "Balkan Ghosts." The chief criticism of RW book is that it is a bit reactionary and opinionizes too much to be called a history book. But I still gained a great deal from reading it.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 13, 2016 10:21:38 AM PDT
NY Reader says:
I learned a great deal from reading RW as well. One of the wondrous things about the Internet is that books can be screened, to some extent, for their validity, or at least intellectual honesty, in ways that would have been very cumbersome pre-Internet. Of course there is no substitute for actually living in a particular place to measure what you've read about it, but luckily I did live in the former Yugoslavia for a short while, and RW is not wrong in many of her impressions. For those seeking less impressionistic accounts, I recommend AT THE GATES OF THE EAST by Omer Hadziselimovic.
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