Friday 18 May 2012

Book Review: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Whatever else I might be reading, I always like to have a Lady Traveller travelogue on the go.  For some months I have been struggling (reader, I cannot lie to you) to finish Naga Path, Ursula Graham Bower's account of her time spent with the Naga tribes of north-eastern India in the 1940s.  Given Ms Graham Bower went from tourist to anthropologist to guerrilla-trainer in a relatively short space of time, you might expect the book to be a thrill a minute ... but sadly I have not found this to be so.

In need of a palate-cleanser, I switched to Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  I'd heard of West before (she famously had an affair and a love child with H.G. Wells) but this is the first thing of hers I've read.
Rebecca West, portrait at NPG
The book is a historical and travel account of Yugoslavia, which West visited in the 1930s.  Why did she decide to go to Yugoslavia?  Well, as she tells it, she was recovering from an operation and listening to the radio when she heard some disturbing news ...

So I rang for my nurse, and when she came I cried to her, 'Switch on the telephone!  I must speak to my husband at once.  A more terrible thing has happened.  The King of Yugoslavia has been assassinated.'  'Oh dear!' she replied. 'Did you know him?' 'No,' I said.  'Then why,' she asked, 'do you think it's so terrible?'

The blend of comedy, observation and premonition are irresistible.

With a memory of other royal assassinations in the Balkans triggering world wars, West made up her mind and told her husband of her plans.

In a panic I said, 'I must go back to Yugoslavia, this time next year, in the spring, for Easter.'

And so she does, husband in tow.

The book is dense, but rewarding.  Each page has a hundred references to history, geography, poetry, people - I keep having to put it down to look things up.  As a result, I'm savouring it in small bites.

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