Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

The next phase of 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...

(The entire section is 2,824 words.)