West lacks Stark’s adventurousness – she journeys by car rather than camel, after all – but she makes up for it with encyclopedic knowledge and acute cultural observation. This tome – part journal, part history – stands at 1150 pages plus bibliography and index. I must confess I haven’t read it all the way through, but I still refer to it often. I read a good portion of it as background in advance of my last trip to the former Yugoslavia—which for me was really a visit to the former Austria-Hungary. It was valuable, though by no means perfect.
When I mentioned it to a young man in Zagreb, he responded that West was pro-Serb. She certainly had anti-Catholic leanings, typical of those favoring Eastern Orthodox Belgrade. She was also very condemning of the Habsburgs, claiming that the rulers played their constituent nationalities off against each other, for instance, granting privileges to one in order to evoke the envy of another. But she never seemed to produce any positive proof of this motivation.
Still, she could be nuanced enough. At the beginning of her “Zagreb VII” chapter, she introduces Bishop Strossmayer, a towering figure of Croat history, through his statue in the public gardens. I found this sculpture, “slim and long-limbed” as West describes it, not far from the rail station, in an open area where local youth had set up a stage and booths for summer evening celebrations. Before that, on my way from southern Hungary to Sarajevo, my driver had stopped the van for supper at a McDonalds in the center of Osijek. On the façade of a building across the street was a plaque honoring Strossmayer, a native of that northern Croatian town. And I’d had the advantage of learning from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon just who he was: a late nineteen- and early twentieth-century Austrian who spent considerable personal wealth helping the Croat nation develop and preserve its cultural and literary heritage. He founded the University of Zagreb, didn’t favor Croats over Serbs and was, in West’s view, a “fearless denunciator of Austro-Hungarian tyranny.” Exemplary of his liberal spirit, West, says, he was one of only four clerics to vote against the declaration of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council.
As I travelled around the norther Dalmatian coast, I could see what she'd meant about the bleak landscape – well the shore is beautiful, but the hills above, quite bare – being despoiled when, centuries ago, the filthy-rich Venetian Republic “cut down what was left of the Dalmatian forests to get timbers for their fleet and piles for their palaces.” As in so many instances, West’s remark is on the button.
Her magnum opus is also peopled with the lively characters she and her husband meet, such as Constantine and Valetta, a Serb and Croat who constantly argue over culture and politics. Many of her observations are on the mark, although they might appear to some modern readers as cheap stereotypes. The Slavs never have enough of a good thing, she says of their propensity to eat enormous quantities of food—and expect their guests to do the same. Anyone who has lived among Slavs can attest to this tendency.
While I don’t agree with all Rebecca West’s interpretations of history, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is indispensable for anyone wanting to acquire a deep and broad knowledge of the region before travelling there. Written after her journey of 1937, it serves partly as a warning of things to come. Her prescience extended not just to WWII, but also to the civil wars of the 1990s. As one reviewer commented on the book’s Amazon page, “Love it or hate it, anyone with an interest in the Balkans will eventually have to deal with this book.”