Book Review: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia


by Rebecca West

New York: Penguin, 1995. 1181 pp. First U.S. edition, two volumes, New York: Viking, 1941. . ISBN:0140188479

Despite it’s age, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon remains the most perceptive treatment of the intricate ethnic politics and "violent inconsistencies" of the Yugoslav lands available. A well-educated, upper class Briton, West a professional writer and literary critic, not to mention H.G. Wells’ mistress and mother of his son, traveled widely throughout Yugoslavia during the mid- and late-30s.

The book is literate, with many wonderful turns of phrase (" . . . a carpet that should never have been begun” or “The normal abnormality which comes from high rank"), and has a great deal of material on local culture and art. It is also extremely insightful, as West unravels the often extraordinarily intricate relationships among the various ethnic and religious groups, and the often torturous reasoning behind some of the political developments in the region (e.g., why the name of the historic port of Ragusa – for nearly a thousand years the only independent Slav state in the Balkans – was changed to Dubrovnik). There is an enormous amount of history here, and West frequently examines it from the different perspectives of the various groups involved. A lot of what is here cannot be found in most recent treatments of the region, such as Timothy Judah’s The Serbs, History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, which fails to mention that the "Field of the Blackbirds" was the site not only of the disastrous 1389 defeat of the Serbs by the Turks, but also of two subsequent national disasters, and also misses the significant of the date on which Gavrilo Princip shot Franz Ferdinand..

Although West has her prejudices (she tends to be anti-Catholic and anti-Italian), overall her treatment of the various groups in the region is even-handed, and she can be, and she is liberal in distributing both praise and blame to all and sundry.

An immensely valuable book.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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