From 1936 to 1938, journalist and novelist Rebecca West made three trips to Yugoslavia. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia is a record of her travels. This immensely long book, which runs to 1150 pages, is much more than a travelogue, however. It is also a vivid account of the violent history of the Balkans going back many hundreds of years. West admits that before she visited the region, she knew almost nothing about it, other than that events in the Balkans (notably the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914) had led to World War I. Since the war had affected West’s own life—as it had all members of West’s generation—she wanted to understand how and why it happened. Her aim in writing Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was to show the Balkan past alongside the present it created.
In her travels, West became an admirer of the Serbs and their culture, often contrasting it favorably with the West. She repeatedly refers to the devastation that followed the famous battle of Kossovo in 1389, in which the Serbs were defeated by the Turks, and which led to five hundred years of Turkish rule. (In modern spelling, one ‘‘s’’ for Kosovo is preferred, rather than West’s ‘‘Kossovo’’.) In the epilogue (written in 1941, two years after the outbreak of World War II) she praised Yugoslavia for refusing to capitulate to Nazi Germany.
In addition to being a travelogue and a history, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a forum for West’s forcefully argued views on a variety of topics, ranging from relations between men and women, to art and music, to the nature of empires and questions of metaphysics. The book in some sections resembles a novel. It illustrates the relationship between West and her husband, and contains a lively cast of traveling companions, including Constantine (the Jewish Serb poet) and Gerda (his nationalistic German wife).