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Black lamb and grey falcon: A journey through Yugoslavia Hardcover – 1941
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“A masterpiece . . . as astonishing in its range, in the subtlety and power of its judgment, as it is brilliant in expression.” —The Times (London)
“Surely one of the great books of our century.” —Diana Trilling --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
In over 1100 pages Dame West leads us through the many nations and peoples that then constituted the then newly created Yugoslavia. She is clearly pro Yugoslavia, and pro-Slavic but less certain about the Turks (Muslims). Respecting their beliefs and holding that they are good enough if only they would stay in their own countries. She has little patience for the Austrians and basically assigns all bad things to the Germans, or at least the subset of Germans who were on the verge of launching World War II. And so it goes through the catalogue of ethnicities and nationalities of a crowded part of Europe. If you have forgotten the term Balkanization or why it was coined, Black and Grey makes the case.
She has a keen eye for architecture and just enough language skills and at least one well-placed friendly and important local to give her readers access to the many pressures and opinions that were simmering under the newly hung flag of Yugoslavia.
Mostly Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a travelogue as Dame West, her European Banker husband and their guide; Poet friend and government officer, Constantine cover the country. Together they travel mostly by car and train. The year is 1938, this is her second such visit. The publication date of 1941 makes her dedication poignant: “To My Friends in Yugoslavia, Who are All Dead or Enslaved.”
Through her we will visit seven major national homelands, notably Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia all names that should have an eerie and deadly and deadly association Dame West would not have wished on a 2017 reader. In each place she will visit (to us) obscure monasteries and monuments. She will recite for us the backgrounds of the royal houses and peoples who were martyred, betrayed or themselves betrayed the many causes that constitute the jumbled nexus of history she knew as Yugoslavia. She makes the case that the selected human tools of the Serbian independence movement that assassinated the Emperor Franz Joseph and started World War One were local heroes.
She takes sides in the case of women, so often sold as breeding animals for political purposes and the more modern pheasant equivalent worked prematurely from the beauty of youth into the exhaustion of age. She is bitter about the casual way the better known western nations sold states in Balkans to Austria or back to the Turks, always to the impoverishment and subjugation of the locals.
Into this mix she offers a plea and a patriotic call to those who had been the isolationist and the idealists. Being above the fray may lend purity to the conscientious objector but at the cost of the blood of those the objector should be sworn to protect. This many years later this can sound as a note of propaganda. Allowing for that it is still an important insight.
When the Bosnian war broke out in 1992 it was common to observe that the war was making enemies of people who had lived in peace for years. By this time Dame West would have been dead for ten years and the state of Yugoslavia that she had traveled was broken with worse to come. What Black Lamb and Grey Falcon achieves, beyond any intention on her part is to remind the modern reader that the forces that broke apart Yugoslavia and started this especially inhumane raping and killing had antecedents centuries in the making. However much individuals had found ways to respect or at least live with each other Dame West had told us, if unwittingly that the spirit of cooperation was weak and the desire for blood had never cooled.
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Amazon's screwy editing guidelines as implemented by its screwy AI bot won't let me write more.