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77 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dense But Rewarding Masterpiece, September 7, 2004
This review is from: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) (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. Ancient history meant dealing with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the decisive battle in which the Turks defeated the Orthodox Serbs led by Tsar Lazar and began to move further north and east in Europe.

West's writing on why liberal democracies are typically reluctant to arm themselves to confront militant totalitarian regimes, which forms a secondary theme, seems quite fresh. West writes as an unabashed liberal and closely analyzes both her own squeamishness about violence and why, in more general terms, liberals' reluctance to use force is ultimately suicidal. Her criticism of the pacifism of the governments of pre-World War II England and France in the face of the visible threat of a rearming Germany and a bellicose Italy is both fascinating and dead-on. One of the points she makes in her admiration of the Slavs is that for five centuries, beginning with the Battle of of Kosovo, and largely ignored by Western Europe, they took arms against the totalitarian regime of their day, militant Islam in the form of the Ottoman empire. Her point of view on this issue is quite clear: for taking on this task, she regards the Serbs to have been the unrecognized and unthanked saviors of Western Christianity.

As brilliant as this book is, however, it will not be to every reader's taste, even those who want to explore the history of the Balkans in depth. West makes little effort to disguise her prejudices: she sees the Slavs as an heroic if primitive race who had been ill-used by the then Great Powers of Europe, Great Britian, France, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And within what was then the newly-formed state of Yugoslavia (which came into being after World War I), she is emphatic in her sympathies for the Serbs, whom she sees as the the descendants of what was good and right in the Byzantine empire. West is equally obvious in her lack of sympathy for the Croats and the Bosnians. But seen through the lens of the more recent wars of Serbian aggression, it is harder to see the Serbs in such an unqualifiedly heroic light.

Other parts of the books also wear less well, including her prolixity (the paperback edition is a whopping 1150 pages of small print). West's long tirades on the evils of the Austro-Hungarian empire seem a curiosity at this point; as evil as it may have been, it has long been relegated to the dustbin of history. Her antipathy to the Germans also seems an historical set piece, although rather more understandable in its context. And West's economic analyses of modern capitalism appear naive and superficial. Finally, the relatively major roles played in her narrative by she and her husband, their Serbian guide Constantine, and his German wife Gerda, are, at best, distracting. But these reservations should be seen for what they are: minor criticisms of an awe-inspiring work.
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