The book is massive. It is 1200 pages long. One of my children got it for me for Christmas. I took two months to read it through, but I persisted because it is absolutely fascinating. I shall take one episode in the whole book and show you how grippingly Rebecca West writes. When the name crops up most people come up with the juicy bit that she had a long affair with H.G.Wells. Rebecca West is a writer of towering proportions. Her writing was mostly journalistic and so she did not get the prizes and kudos that novelists get. I hope this post will make you want to wallow in her beautiful prose and marvel at her research.
The book is about the former Yugoslavia and all its composite parts, namely Croatia, Bosnia, Herzogovina, Serbia, Dalmatia, Macedonia etc. I shall take one incident out of the book, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria which sparked the First World War.. The Serbs had only recently thrown off five centuries of foreign rule by roundly defeating the Turkish army only to find themselves saddled by the powerful but decaying Austrian Empire. Archduke Ferdinand was not only the heir to the throne of the hated Austro-Hungarian Empire but he was also personally loathed because of his contempt for the Serbs. He chose to go to Sarajevo on the one day he should have had the sensitivity to avoid. The day was St.Vitrus Day the 28th of June 1914, the anniversary of the day five centuries before when the Serbs had lost their empire to the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo.
Rebecca West sets the story against the huge historical canvass of European history. Things were coming to a head. The world was in a froil. The monarchs of Europe were spoiling for a fight. And Franz Ferdinand, this rude, obstinate and insignificant man chose to go to the one place he should have avoided and starts a war that was catastrophic to Europe. When one speaks of the First World War one runs out of hyperboles. That catastrophy outdoes all human experience before and after. Thirty seven million died in that war not counting what is casually called collateral damage. Following the war, the Spanish Flu in 1918 carried away another 50 million exhausted and weakened people world wide.
Rebecca West sets the scene beautifully in the reception hall of the castle where Franz Ferdinand stands before he goes to his death in Sarajevo. Behind him on the huge walls of the castle are the mounted heads of half a million animals he had personally killed.
“so the half million beasts which had fallen to Franz Ferdinand’s gun, according to his own calculations, were present that day in the reception hall at Sarajevo. One can conceive the space of this room stuffed all the way up to the crimson and gold vaults and stalactites with the furred and feathered ghosts, set close, because there were so many of them—stags with the air between their antlers stuffed with woodcock, quail, pheasant, partridge, ptarmigan, and the like; boars standing bristling flank to flank, the breadth under their broad bellies packed with layer upon layer of hares and rabbits. Their animal eyes, clear and dark as water, would brightly watch the approach of their slayer to an end that exactly resembled their own.”
Given his enthusiasm to kill, no man better deserved the fate he was courting for himself in Sarajevo:
“He liked to kill and kill and kill, unlike men who shoot to get food or who have kept in touch with the primitive life in which the original purpose of shooting is remembered. Prodigious figures are given of the game that fell to the double-barreled Mannlicher rifles which were specially made for him. At a boar hunt given by Kaiser Wilhelm, sixty boars were let out and Franz Ferdinand had the first stand: fifty-nine fell dead, the sixtieth limped by on three legs. At a Czech castle in one day’s sport he bagged two thousand, one hundred and fifty pieces of small game. Not long before his death he expressed satisfaction because he had killed his three-thousandth stag.”
The Archduke must have known he was the most unpopular man in the Empire; he must have known that his visit on that day would deliberately mock the Serbs who overthrew the Turks only to be enslaved by the Austrian Empire. The whole visit was a shambles. Security was all confused or non-existent. The Serb patriots were prepared to murder him. There were seven of them standing in different parts of the route on that day. One of them threw a bomb at his carriage and only succeeded in wounding his aid-de-camp. Following this Franz Ferdinand stops at the Town Hall for the welcoming speech. A witness who as a boy takes up the tale is quoted here by Rebecca West:
“the Archduke come in, red and choking with rage. Just a little way along the embankment a young man, Chabrinovitch, had thrown a bomb at him and had wounded his aide-de-camp. So when the poor mayor began to read his address of welcome the Archduke shouted out in a thin alto, “That’s all a lot of rot. I come here to pay you a visit, and you throw bombs at me. It’s an outrage.” Then the Archduchess spoke to him softly, and he calmed down, and said, “Oh, well, you can go on.” But at the end of the speech there was another scene, because the Archduke had not got his speech, and for a moment the secretary who had it could not be found. Then when it was brought to him he was like a madman because the manuscript was all spattered with the aide-de- camp’s blood.
“But he read the speech, and then came up here with the Archduchess, into this room. My father followed, in such a state of astonishment that he walked over and took my hand and stood beside me, squeezing it very tightly. We all could not take our eyes off the Archduke, but not as you look at the main person in a Court spectacle. We could not think of him as royalty at all, he was so incredibly strange. He was striding quite grotesquely; he was lifting his legs as high as if he were doing the goose step. I suppose he was trying to show that he was not afraid.”
After this strange incident in the Town Hall Franz Ferdinand decides to get in his car and go on with the rest of the tour as though nothing had happened. It was inconceivable that this arrogant man would not have known that the whole of Bosnia was in revolt and every Serb would have killed him given the chance. The driver of the open car got confused at a junction and stopped. Here 19 year old Gavrilo Pricip was waiting for him. With two carefully aimed shots he killed the Archduke and his consort.
Historians have usually sided with monarchies and they have dismissed Gavrillo Princip as an adventurer and assassin. The Serbs thought of him as a patriot. Recently, following the Bosnian war when they erected a statue in honour of Princip, the BBC was scathing in its remarks about the efforts, dismissing the patriot as a mere assassin. But Princip’s actions brought down crashing around the heads of Europeans three of the most powerful Empires, namely the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. He changed the face of Europe forever. Maps were redrawn, borders chopped and changed and half the monarchies of Europe wiped out. It was the poor young man’s legacy that no one in his lifetime or in his death took him seriously. Only today I was relating the story to a friend and he said, “well if Princip had not done it someone else would have done it”. I replied that’s like saying if one motor car did not kill the drunk another car would have done. That is no argument. The fact is that Princip was the one who brought on the catastrophic events that followed his actions. I am in no way condoning the massive catastrophy of the world war. That I lay solely in the laps of sclerotic monarchies spoiling for a fight. Princip’s actions played a positive role in putting to bed three of the most corrupt and evil Empires of modern times.
Quite aside from the history lessons, I urge readers to enjoy Rebecca West’s beautiful prose. She gives descriptions which as I have said in my book’s margin, far outdo a colour photograph. She points out details which you would have missed in a photograph. Here she is describing clothes some Macedonian women were selling:
“All the embroidery had a meaning. The first I picked up had a gay little border to its hem, a line of suns with rays, half an inch across, with trees in between them and stars dancing above them. The suns had black centres and rays, and their circumferences were alternately orange and green, and the trees were alternately green and blue, and the stars were green and blue and brown. The design stood on a black line of stitching, under which were two broken lines of stitches in all these colours, and then there was a corded edge oversewn with buttonhole stitches in black, deep blue, light blue, crimson, green and purple, with the black predominating so that there was an effect of darkness stirring with the colours of creation. But the little suns and trees and stars would not take creation too seriously, it was as if fun was being poked at.”
Such an eye for detail she had and such a good head for prose. The book is a delight. As I say, I am no book reviewer. I give you slices of sunlight. ;))