One of the most impressive features of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the way in which West blends autobiography with history and travel narrative. After the prologue, she explains that in 1898, when she was five, her mother and cousin had stood beside each other reading a newspaper with consternation because Empress Elizabeth of Austria had been assassinated. This early childhood memory—joined five years later on June 11, 1903, by the assassination of Alexander, the king of Serbia, and his wife, Queen Draga—remained more vivid to West than the 1914 murder of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, which touched off World War I. From the earliest age, it seemed to her that human beings were as much in love with death as with life.
West quotes Blaise Pascal’s sentiment that humans are thinking reeds who know they will die and whose consciousness of death is nobler than the universe that would crush them. Pascal’s words, West writes, inspire her to explore the dangers that threaten human existence. She believes that the Balkans will help to explain to her why she feels so personally threatened by her anticipation of another world war.
West also explains her affinity for Yugoslavs, whom she cherishes for their intense polyglot intellectual curiosity. She contrasts her reception to the standoffish, tepid one that visitors receive in England, which does not realize how much it owes to the Slavs who slowed and then stopped the spread of the Turks into the West. The Balkans allow West to see the conflicts of history in the open and not in the blurred and false optimism of the British Empire or the diffuseness of life in modern towns. Urban life actually covers up what people need to know if they are to survive.
West acknowledges a romantic—one might say a Balkan—strain in her blood that tends to intensify every insight, creating as much a fiction of Yugoslavia as a fact. Yet she includes at strategic intervals her husband’s sensible English advice: Dispense with apocalyptic revelations, for if they were to come true, she would not like it. Without Henry Andrews to test her observations, to ask pointed questions, to respond with as much intelligence as emotion, the narrative of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon might not have achieved its balance between thought and feeling, fact and imagination, which is also the equilibrium of West’s marriage.
It is West’s contention that what occurs on the world stage must be connected to the private heart. Indeed, she layers her narrative with complex psychological and philosophical insights while reminding her readers that it is a journey, a very careful recording of what she saw in Yugoslavia but also a...
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