Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a travelogue of epic sweep through the former Yugoslavia and its many cultural regions: Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia, and Montenegro. Rebecca West re-creates the experience of her journey through culture and history, intertwining the near and distant past in a narrative that possesses something of the flavor of the great works of Marcel Proust. Her guide, the poet Constantine, speaks as the poetic imagination of the Yugoslav people in this cultural dialogue between Eastern and Western Europe.
The book begins with a prologue describing West’s stay in a nursing home preparing for surgery. A nurse puzzles over why West is so disturbed about the assassination of Yugoslav king Alexander I (October 9, 1934). Was the king a friend of West? The question prompts West to think about how so many women are disconnected from world events and thus think only in terms of private, domestic matters; whereas men, preoccupied with public life, seldom give personal relationships the careful attention women do. Women and men, in other words, suffer from deficiencies that limit their capacities as human beings. In the broadest sense, then, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is about West’s exploration of her own humanity, using events in Yugoslavia as a prism to reveal the full spectrum of history that most people fail to perceive.
The author and her husband, Henry Andrews, enter Yugoslavia by railroad on the line that runs from Munich, Germany, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, formerly a province of Yugoslavia. Four German tourists share their train compartment and brag about the advantages Germany holds over the “barbaric” country they are entering.
In Zagreb, home of the Croats—who are southern Slavs—they meet Constantine, a Yugoslav poet and government official who had befriended West on her previous trip to the same country and who, this time, becomes their tour guide. In Zagreb, West and Andrews are surprised at the fierce arguments between Croats and Serbs (Serbia had been the largest Yugoslav province), while Constantine defends the central government in Belgrade (now in Serbia).
The country is also divided internally by religious beliefs. There are three main religious groups, the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Catholics, and the Muslims. The last were either Turks who had remained in the country when the Serbs had driven out the Turkish regime more than a century before, or were Yugoslavs who had accepted Islam during the five centuries of Turkish occupation, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina (another former province of Yugoslavia). West adopts Constantine’s view that the Serbs must be the leading force in Yugoslavia and that the Croats harbor too much sympathy for Germany and Austria because Croatia was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Although West finds parts of Croatia charming, especially the compact and beautiful Dubrovnik, which she calls “a city on a coin,” she finds the Croats lacking in support of their native traditions and ungrateful in refusing to acknowledge the Serbian victories over the Turks and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, victories that led to the creation of a free and independent Yugoslavia.
At Sarajevo (a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina), West and Andrews meet Constantine’s German wife, Gerda. She riles both West and Andrews because she is so contemptuous of the Yugoslavs and takes every opportunity to assert the superiority of German civilization. Gerda has no understanding of “process,” by which West means a grasp of how history develops. Thus, Gerda becomes the symbol of a German mentality that justifies its invasion of Yugoslavia and other lands as the right of a superior people to dominate their inferiors.
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the journey is a rail trip to Belgrade, where the large supply of good food and the pleasant provincial air of the capital and its people impress West and Andrews. They also enjoy a stay at Lake Naum, on the southern edge of Yugoslavia near Greece and Albania. It is a wild and beautiful part of the country, despite the poverty of the land and its people. It is in episodes like this that West elaborates her view of Yugoslavia as a paradise on Earth, populated by a people who are close to the soil and to their own traditions in a way that other Westerners (like the British) no longer cherish.
From the Lake Naum area, they travel back part of the way to Belgrade on the railroad and then drive to Kotor on the Dalmatian coast. There Constantine and Gerda say farewell to West and Andrews. The author and her husband take a ship at Kotor and travel up the coast, returning to Zagreb by rail. They visit the Plitvice Lakes on the way. The last leg of the journey is by rail from Zagreb to Budapest, Hungary.
In Budapest, the sadness of the plight of the Yugoslavs impresses West one last time. There she meets a university student who wants to write a paper about West’s work. However, West believes the student will have a difficult time because her work is so diverse (biography, novels, travel writing, art criticism, and other forms of journalism and literature) that a unified view of her career would prove elusive. Like Yugoslavia, in other words, West is a congeries of contradictions, with sides of herself in conflict with one another.
In an epilogue written after the beginning of World War II, West reflects on how her country and the rest of Western Europe had failed to engage the forces of fascism that ultimately overwhelmed Yugoslavia. That country’s history is vital, she believes, in understanding how the West ultimately defeated the reactionary forces of Islam. Western Europe is indebted to the Yugoslavs, especially the Serbs, which perhaps West’s book will make clear to her compatriots.
The focus of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is on the folk culture of the former Yugoslavia and the reactions and impressions of the narrator. The black lamb in the title refers to an incident in the book in which a lamb is sacrificed as part of an ancient religious custom; the grey falcon alludes to an old and popular Slavic folk song. Set in the years just prior to World War II, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon evokes the political attitudes of the period, somewhat sentimental expressions of the Marxist leanings of Constantine and the humanism of West and her husband, ironically counterpoised by history, with Nazism and Fascism nascent in the background.
West’s style is elegant, witty, and rhetorically grand. Her first-person narrative permits frequent and delightful digressions into entertaining personal vignettes. The book is a compendium of intellectual and historical reactions to a personal experience, relayed through West’s highly literate consciousness.
Critics have faulted Black Lamb and Grey Falcon for various errors and a pro-Serb bias, and it is true that West tended to take sides in her travels through Yugoslavia. However, she acknowledges that the Serbs could be overbearing and even murderous. Thus, she includes a scene in which her Serb driver, Dragutin, suggests the best way to deal with recalcitrant Croats is to kill them. Although Dragutin expresses his opinion in an offhand and even comic way, his words are chilling, foreshadowing the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s, when the Serbs massacred thousands of Croats and Muslims. Even then, however, authoritative commentators on the Balkan Wars find West’s book instructive and inspiring for its probing of the flaws that led to conflict among the southern Serbs.
The text of the book clearly reveals that West understood her failings. Her husband is often her foil, objecting to her sweeping interpretations of history and presenting an alternative to her romantic views that led her to identify so intensely with the Serbs and their noble quest to rid Yugoslavia of the repressive Ottoman Empire. Indeed, Andrews’s presence in the book in the form of dialogues between husband and wife is crucial—not only as a corrective to West’s biases but as a dramatic example of the conflict between men and women and how they view the world. For Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is also a feminist work, a profound mediation on the roles men and women adopt in society.
West’s opinions are certainly open to challenge, but what makes her book a masterpiece is its brilliant portrayal of tensions between men and women; among ethnic, racial, and religious groups; and, ultimately, of the tensions in her own personality that make her view of the world so dynamic. She presents, in other words, a view of herself in the process of becoming herself. This self-conscious, introspective approach is also meant as a contrast to Gerda, a character critics have deplored because West makes her so prejudiced as to be incredible. For West, however, Gerda, is an allegorical figure, one who must be presented as West’s opposite in order for the dialectical structure of the book to succeed.
West has often been credited (by Truman Capote and others) as having produced the first nonfiction novel because she takes actual events and people, set against the panoramic background of history, to create a deeply personal and fictive work, a narrative of interactions with different cultures and with world events.