Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West

Macedonia (South Serbia)
 
 
Skoplje

IT did not seem possible that Gerda had said good-bye to us. That, literally, was all she had said. She had extended her hand and had uttered the single word "good-bye," its starkness unpalliated by any acknowledgment that she had been our guest for a fortnight. It seemed to me that she might have said something, for she had had great fun at dinner the night before, being rude to me with a peculiar virtuosity, using pettiness as if it were a mighty club. While Constantine saw her off on the Belgrade train we sat outside the hotel and drank iced beer, and felt weak but contented, like fever patients whose temperature has at last fallen. My husband bought some guelder roses from an Albanian, laid them on the table, contemplated them for some moments, and said:

"Gerda has no sense of process. That is what is the matter with Gerda. She wants the result without doing any of the work that goes to make it. She wants to enjoy the position of a wife without going to the trouble of making a real marriage, without admiring her husband for his good qualities, without practising loyal discretion regarding his bad qualities, without respecting those of his gods which are not hers. She wants to enjoy motherhood without taking care of her children, without training them in good manners or giving them a calm atmosphere. She wants to be our friend, to be so close to us in friendship that we will ask her to travel about the country with us, but she does not make the slightest effort to like us, or even to conceal that she dislikes us. She is angry when you are paid such little respect as comes your way because you are a well-known writer, she feels it ought to come to her also, though she has never written any books. She is angry because we have some money. She feels that it might just as well belong to her. That our possession of this money has something to do with my work in the City and my family's work in Burma never occurs to her. For her the money might as easily have been attached to her as to us by a movement as simple as that which pastes a label on a trunk. As she has no sense of what goes to bring people love, or friendship, or distinction, or wealth, it seems to her that the whole world is enjoying undeserved benefits; and in a universe where all is arbitrary it might just as well happen that the injustice was pushed a little further and that all these benefits were taken from other people, leaving them nothing, and transferred to her, giving her everything. Given the premiss that the universe is purely arbitrary, that there is no causality at work anywhere, there is nothing absurd in that proposal.

"This is the conqueror's point of view. It was the Turks' point of view in all their aggressive periods. Everybody who is not Gerda is to Gerda 'a dog of an infidel,' to be treated without mercy. If she could get hold of our money by killing us, and would not be punished for it, I think she would do it, not out of cruelty, but out of blankness. Since she denies the reality of process, she would only envisage our death, which would be a great convenience to her, and not our dying, which would be a great inconvenience to us. She has shut herself off from the possibility of feeling mercy, since pain is a process and not a result. This will give her a great advantage in any conflict with more sensitive people, and indeed it is not her only advantage. Her nature gives her a firm foundation for her life that many a better woman lacks. Constantine is not less but more devoted as a husband because she is a bad wife to him. All his humility says, 'If she thinks so little of me, is there perhaps some lack in me?' All his affection says, 'Since she is so desperately hungry, what can I give her?' And, needless to say, her children are devoted to her. It is the impulse of children to do whatever their parents do not. If their parents bend to them, they turn away; if their parents turn away, they bend to them.

"In her wider relationships also she is very happy. To begin with, nobody who is not like Gerda can believe how bad Gerda is. We did not, at the beginning; and if we told people the story of what Gerda has been to us on this trip in anything like the concentrated terms in which one usually tells a story we would see a doubt pass over their faces. 'They must have been tactless with her,' 'They cannot have made her properly welcome,' is what they would think to themselves. That she invited herself to be our guest and then continuously insulted us is not a proposition acceptable to the mind, which rightly sees that there is no hope for humanity if it can bring itself to behave like that. If we established the truth of our story they would grasp at excuses for her, would plead that she was an alien in a strange land, that her experiences as a young girl in the war had made her neurotic, that she had been given an inferiority complex by the Treaty of Versailles.

"These things may be true; but it is also true that to recognize them is dangerous. It weakens the resistance that should be made against Gerda. For there is no way to be safe from her except to treat her as if she were, finally and exclusively, a threat to existence. Look how she has defeated us. You love Macedonia more than any other country you have ever visited. Sveti Naum is to you a place apart; you wanted to take me there. We have made that journey. We have made it in the company of an enemy who tormented us not only by her atrocious behaviour to us but by behaving atrociously to other people whom we liked when she was with us. This has clouded our vision of the country, it has angered us and weakened us. When Constantine said to us, 'My wife wishes to come to Macedonia with us,' we should not merely have paid, 'We do not think that will be a success, we would rancher she did not come,' we should have said, 'We dislike your wife extremely, we dislike the way she speaks against you and Yugoslavia, we will not travel with her, and if she turns up at the train we will take our luggage out of it.' But we could not. We did not believe that she could go on being as bad as she had been; we were sorry for her because she was a German who loved her country and had committed herself to living in the Balkans; we have been elaborately trained from our infancy not to express frankly our detestation of others. So she got what she wanted, and she is still getting what she wanted. Do not think she is going to Belgrade because we did not want her to go to Petch: she is going, quite simply, because she thinks it would be more pleasant to go back to her children.

"Gerda, in fact, is irresistible. It is therefore of enormous importance to calculate how many Gerdas there are in the world, and whether they are likely to combine for any purpose. Gerda is, of course, not characteristically German. Think of Gustav and Georg and Brigitte and the s! They could not, to save their lives, behave as she has done. But you can, perhaps, think of some English people who are like her." "There was a gymnastic teacher at my school who was as insensitive and aggressive as that, and once I went to tea at the home of one of my school friends, and her family seemed to me as bad," I said, "and then I once met some Americans who were like that, and then at home Lady and Lady and Mrs. seem to me much the same, with only a little more skill in dissembling it." "And I know a Jew who belongs to the same order," said my husband. "In fact this type appears anywhere and everywhere, though probably much more densely in some areas than others. It seems to me that it appears wherever people are subject to two conditions. The first condition is that they should have lost sight of the importance of process; that they have forgotten that everything 'which is not natural is artificial and that artifice is painful and difficult; that they should be able to look at a loaf of bread and not realize that miracles of endurance and ingenuity had to be performed before the wheat grew, and the mill ground, and the oven baked. This condition can be brought about by several causes: one is successful imperialism, where the conquering people has the loaf built for it from the wheat ear up by its conquered subjects; another is modern machine civilization, where a small but influential proportion of the population lives in towns in such artificial conditions that a loaf of bread comes to them in a cellophane wrapper with its origins as unvisualized as the begetting and birth of a friend's baby. The other condition is that people should have acquired a terror of losing the results of process, which are all they know about; they must be afraid that everything artificial is going to disappear, and they are going to be thrown back on the natural; they must foresee with a shudder a day when there will be no miraculous loaf born in its virginity of cellophane, and they will have to eat grass.

"Now, these conditions obtained in the case of the Turks when they became nuisances in the Balkan Peninsula. At first their wars were inspired not by fanaticism or greed to enslave foreign populations but by legitimate enough desires for political and commercial security. They became cruel and tyrannous only when they were glutted by the conquest of Mohammed the Conqueror and Selim and Suleiman the Magnificent, and when the emergence of Russia and the successful opposition of Central Europe and Venice made them afraid of losing the fruits of those victories. They had never learned the art of prosperity in peacetime, they were not economically productive. Neither, oddly enough, is Germany, in spite of her enormous energy and resources. Gerda is bourgeoise and town-bred. She is proud because her family are all professional men; it is of importance to her that she cannot bake a loaf, she likes to buy her cakes in a shop. Her theory of her own social value depends on her being able to put down money and buy results of processes without being concerned in the processes themselves. And she is enormously afraid that she will not be able to go on doing this. The war made her afraid; the depression has made her still more afraid. It does not occur to her that what she and her kind must do is to reorganize the process of state life till there is some sort of guarantee of a certain amount of artificial goods for all of us. It does not occur to her that she had better learn to bake bread instead of buy it, for since her social value depends on her not doing so, she regards this as a sentence of death. Therefore she wants to take results that belong to other people: she wants to bone everybody else's loaf.

"Those conditions apply to too many people all over the world to make me regard Gerda as isolated. She is an international phenomenon. Jut all the same I think that there may be enough Gerdas concentrated in separate areas to make her in effect a nationalist phenomenon. She probably exists in sufficient numbers in Central Europe to make it an aggressive and, indeed, irresistible power. She was, after all, the determining element in the Austro-Hungarian Empire all through the nineteenth century. The parasite city of Vienna, spoiled by its share of the luxury the Austrian and Hungarian nobles wrung out of their peasantry, and terrified by the signs of economic insecurity, howled all the time to be given other people's loaves. Think how furiously they demanded that they should be given preference over the Czechs in seeking employment, that they should not have to pass such difficult examinations as the Czechs for entrance to the Civil Service. It must have disgusted a proud German like Bismarck, who was an aristocrat, a rounded man who repudiated nothing of life and knew the peasant's role as well as his own, and who was not afraid. But Gerda would have thought the agitation most natural.

"Let us admit it, for a little while the whole of our world may belong to Gerda. She will snatch it out of hands too well-bred and compassionate and astonished to defend it. What we must remember is that she will not be able to keep it. For her contempt for the process makes her unable to conduct any process. You remember how when we met her at the station at Belgrade she expressed an opinion on the book you held in your hand, The Healing Ritual, which was sheer nonsense, because she had not read the book; she imagined she could judge it by her knowledge of the bare fact of its existence. You saw at Ochrid how she had not the faintest idea of what Communism is and how it is distinguished from Social Democracy, though she was once a Communist herself; she had obviously never thought of making any effort to find out what was the creed behind the church she had joined simply because it was large and many other people had joined it before her. You can conquer a country on this principle. To go up in an aeroplane and drop bombs is a simple use of an elaborate process that has already been developed. But you cannot administer a country on this principle. Do you remember what Sir Charles Eliot said in his book, Turkey in Europe, about the peculiar hollowness of the Ottoman Empire? Here was this great entity acquired by Turkish military genius in its full force and retained by its remnants, and within it no process of any degree of complication or difficulty. In warfare they had the advantage of what Eliot calls 'that special instinct for discipline and order which has unfortunately nothing to do with good government, but surely makes every man render implicit obedience to his military or official superior.' The rest of life they faced with such a blank ignorance of what was needed to secure productiveness and continuity that they were quite contented with their failure. They did not know how to live a comfortable life in their houses: they never learned to protect themselves against the rigour of winter. They liked the country and agricultural life, but they would work only land so fat that it hardly needed to be worked. Their commerce and financing and administration had to be done by foreigners; many of their generals and admirals were Italians and Poles and other European renegades; and many of the most capable grand viziers were Arabs or Albanians or Slavs. They never developed any economic programme other than the confiscation of money from their subjects without repayment. Nor did the Turks ever feel that the nations who could work land and handle business and husband the resources of their countries were using logical means to obtain desirable ends. What is it Eliot says? 'The Turk regards them as conjurors who can perform a variety of tricks, which may be, according to circumstances, useful, amusing, or dangerous; but for all Christendom he has a brutal, unreasoning contempt the contempt of the sword for everything that can be cut.'

"I think we can very easily imagine a state engendered by Gerdas falling into such an attitude. The problem is how long the part of the world conquered by Gerda's state will bear with its inefficiency. That inefficiency, mind you, is not a mere prediction of mine. It has already appeared. Consider the disastrous history of Austrian and German banking since the war, which is not to be explained by anything except the sheer inability of bankers of Gerda's kind to realize that banking is a process in which due regard has to be paid all the time to the laws of causality. True, the Ottoman Empire was able to survive in spite of its inefficiency more than five hundred years after it came to Europe. But it had certain advantages Gerda's empire will not have. It had Islam behind it, are religion that was already seven hundred years old, a religion that had not only justified but was identified with militarism. Now Gerda cannot use Christianity to unify her peoples, because it is in essence against aggression and on the side of mercy; she may invent a new religion of a pagan kind, but she won't be able to get it into the blood of the people in time. Young men may rush into battle shouting the names of gods who have been rug up on a sewing machine the night before last, but such gods will not comfort those who mourn the young men when the battle goes ill.

"The Turks also had the advantage of facing the Slavs, a people who had known order or peace or unity only intermittently during three centuries and whose religion, unlike Islam, divided rather than united its followers, first by the separation of the Western and the Eastern Churches, and secondly by the exploitation of sectarian differences by the great powers. Gerda will not have that advantage either. Today everybody in Europe knows at first hand or at good second hand of the blessings brought by peace and order, and nearly all of them realize that unity is at least a useful instrument, and, if Protestantism has done much harm by making religion identical with ethical effort of a limited kind, it has done a great deal of good by putting down in black and white the ideas of Christianity, and showing us what life will lose if we abandon them. Remember it will not be to anybody's advantage to keep Gerda's empire in existence. Turkey in Europe was an advantage to England, who wanted a weak power at that end of the Mediterranean to keep out any strong power that might have inconvenient ambitions; it held back the Austrian Empire on its way to the Black Sea, and the Russian Empire from its Pan-Slavist dream and its itch for Constantinople. But Gerda's empire will serve no such purpose. It will be an object of fear and nothing else.

"For this reason I believe that Gerda's empire cannot last long. But while it lasts it will be terrible. And what it leaves when it passes will also be terrible. For we cannot hope for anything but a succession of struggles for leadership among men whose minds will have been unfitted for leadership by the existence of tyranny and the rupture of European tradition, until, slowly and painfully, the nations re-emerge, civilization re-emerges. No wonder that when you came to Macedonia you were fascinated. You were looking in the magic crystal and seeing our future. Oh, I do not wish to exaggerate. It is possible that the full tragedy of Gerda's assault on those who are not Gerda will not be fully enacted, that only seventy or sixty or fifty per cent of the potential evils of the situation will be realized. But the Turks are here, for Gerda is here, and Europe is in her soul Macedonia. If Europeans have not the virtues of the Macedonian peasant, our life is lost, and we are the greenfly on the rose tree that has been tom up and thrown on the rubbish-heap. All that we are and do means nothing, all that our ancestors were and did means nothing, unless we are naturally the equals of the peasant women on the Skopska Tserna Gora and in Bitolj, whose fingers never forget the pattern that an ancient culture had created as symbols for what it had discovered regarding life and death."

My husband said these things while we drank our beer, while we took a little walk by the embankment and watched the carters take their horses into mid-stream of the louvered river, while we lunched off paprika stew and yoghourt, and later, in our bedroom, while I sat by the window and mended the clothes that had just been brought back to us by a gipsy laundress dressed in saffron and ultramarine. We were resting because tomorrow was St. George's Day, and that evening we were motoring out with some Serbian friends of ours, a Bosnian Moslem and his wife, a Serbian from Novi Sad, Mehmed and Militsa, to see some of the rites that are carried on in the villages during the eve of the festival. They are all fertility rite, magic remedies against the curse of barrenness that lies on Macedonia, partly because of the malaria and partly because of the overwork of the women and the lack of care for child-bearing women. Constantine was not going with us, for he had to dine with a Government official in the town. We had not the least idea what the night was going to be like; it hung before us like a dark blue curtain which, we knew, would disclose a beautiful pattern when we came to examine it. I was vaguely displeased by what my husband said; I complained, "I cannot bear this, it sounds as if I would die before things are tidied up." My husband said, "But certainly you will die before things are tidied up! You must realize that or you are bound to become unhappy and embittered." "It is, of course, not of the slightest importance that we should have the satisfaction of seeing the world at rights before we die," I murmured, feeling about in the work-basket for the darker beige darning silk, and then I burst out laughing, because I knew that for all we were saying there lived in both our hearts a bright idiot hope, "In five years it will be all right.... Well, in ten years, then..."

There was a tap at the door and Constantine came into the room. He looked tired but liberated. "The chambermaid," he said, looking down the passage, "is of the Gretchen type. But how different would Faust have been if the Gretchen Faust and Mephistopheles met at the well, had been an experienced chambermaid." "Well, that is probably what the play needs," I said, for I love to torment Constantine about Goethe, "for God knows Nietzsche was right when he said it was a thin and empty little story." "Here is a telegram for your poor husband," said Constantine, sitting down. "The chambermaid is not unlike a petite femme in Paris who played a great part in the lives of us Serb students in Paris just before the war. She was called Blanche la Vache and we found her enormously sympathetic. It was to her, I remember, that we owed enlightenment on a matter that had greatly perplexed us. How was it, we wondered, when we went to the petites fetmnes they always knew at once that we were not German, we were not Swiss, we were not Italians, we were not Russians, but quite simply Serbs? So at a favourable moment I put the question to Blanche la Vache and she answered me at once, like a good honest girl. 'It is because,' she said, 'you have the pants that fasten not with buttons but with a cord, like the pyjamas, and all women know that it is only in the Balkans that such are worn.' So I ran back to my comrades and told them, and then what a waste there was! For we rushed out and bought new pants of the European fashion, and threw away those we had brought from home, and of course our good Serbian mothers had sent us to Paris with a dozen of everything." "Alas, my dear," said my husband, "this is a telegram from Berlin telling me to expect a telephone call this evening. I shall not be able to go with you and Militsa and Mehmed tonight. What a pity! But I will go and have tea with them and see you off. Not for anything would I miss seeing Militsa and Mehmed."

I did not doubt that he was disappointed, for these friends of ours are at once intoxicating and reassuring. Once I showed Denis Saurat, who is one of the wisest of men, a letter I had received from Militsa. "She writes from Skoplje, I see," he said. "Really, we are all much safer than we suppose. If there are twenty people like this woman scattered between here and China, civilization will not pettish." Militsa was born in Novi Sad when it was Hungarian: that is to say, she is a descendant of one of the thirty-seven thousand families who were led into Austrian territory by the Patriarch Arsenius in 1690 because they could no longer support the tyranny of the Turk. Her father was a dashing figure of the nineteenth century, who had studied medicine in Vienna and became the star of a students' corps, was later an officer in the Russian Army, and ended as a famous man of letters who translated Faust into Serbian. Militsa takes in person after his mother, who was a Greek, probably of the true and ancient stock, for she has the same fine and small-boned good looks as some people I have known who were of unquestioned descent from Byzantine families, and she inherited her father's intellectual powers. From her childhood she has known Serbian, German, Hungarian, Latin, and Greek, and later she learned English, French, and Italian. She has studied profoundly the literatures of all these languages; I have rarely met anyone, English or American, who was better acquainted with the English poets. She has taken her doctorate in philosophy, has written much on Plato, and is now tracing the influence of the Cabbalists on the Bishop-King Peter II of Montenegro, who was a great mystic poet. She herself writes poetry, in which her exquisite sensitiveness explores the whole universe in obedience to the instructions of her ambitious intellect. She talks with the brilliance of a firefly, but her flight is not wandering, it is a swift passage from one logically determined point to another. And besides these things she is what other women spend all their lives in being. She inherits the medieval tradition of housewifery which persisted very strongly among the Serbs of Novi Sad; and she is a devoted daughter to her widowed mother, and a loving wife to Mehmed.

Mehmed is a Herzegovinian Moslem, a descendant of one of the Slav landowners who became Moslem in the sixteenth century rather than abandon the Bogomil heresy. His father was an imam, a Moslem priest, and he divas very pious when he was a boy. It was his ambition then to win the title of hafiz, which is given to a man who knows the Koran by heart, but he had only mastered half of it when he was caught up into the tide of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian nationalist movement. He was the leading spirit in the Mostar counterpart of the revolutionary cell in Sarajevo to which Princip belonged. For a summer he worked as a comitadji in Macedonia, and later joined the Serbian Army during the Balkan wars. After that he went to study law in Vienna and became a leader of the disaffected Slav students of Austrian nationality. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he escaped to Belgrade and fought with the Serbian Army. He was in a position to know how little the Serbian Government had wanted war at that time, for he found himself fighting in battle after battle that would have been a decisive victory had he and his comrades not been hamstrung by lack of munitions. He took part in the retreat through Albania, and in Corfu was invalided out of the army. Still a boy, he had behind him five years of almost continuous military service, irregular and regular. He spent the rest of the war years taking a degree in Oriental studies in the Sorbonne, and is a scholar of Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. After the peace he returned to Herzegovina, and, without making an effort to protect his own interests, assisted in the land scheme which broke up the big estates belonging to the Moslem landowners and distributed it among the peasants. Through all the intricacies of post-war Yugoslavian politics, in spite of the temptations they have offered to passion and acquisitiveness, he has urged the importance to the state of fundamental virtue, of honest administration, and of justice towards all races and classes. In fact, experiences which should have turned him into a wolf have left him unchangeably mild and inflexibly merciful. He has suffered the shipwreck of his political ambitions during the last years, for under the dictatorship of Stoyadinovitch all such democrats as he have been driven out of politics. But he is still unembittered, laughter is always rolling up from the depths of his full-bodied Bosnian handsomeness.

Militsa and Mehmed have a special value to me not only because of what they are, but because of where they are. Twice I passed through Skoplje before I stopped there. After the first time I said to some people in Athens, "I saw from the train a place called Skoplje which has a most beautiful fortress. Would it be worth while going there?" They were anti-Slav and answered, "Worth while going to Skoplje? What an idea! It is just a dreary little provincial town; there's nothing there at all, not an intelligent person." So the second time I went through the town, on my may back to Belgrade, I looked out at it and conceived it as full only with emptiness. My eye travelled over its roofs and I thought of dull rooms underneath them, with dull people eating and drinking an/ sleeping, with only the drabbest connective tissue of being to bind these functions together into a day. And all the time there was the flat on the Vardar embankment, lovely with old furniture brought from Novi Sad that told of the best in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, that spoke of the Vienna of Mozart and Schubert, and there were Militsa and Mehmed, always in motion, yet always steady. Militsa runs from room to room, from the library to the kitchen, from the kitchen to her bedroom, to find out what Shelley said of Chatterton, to see if there are any bubbles rising in the last lot of preserved peaches, to try on a hat she has bought from the Polish milliner in the High Street; Mehmed sits in conference with a group of grave old Moslem priests, so old that the white bands round their fezes have become blue with many years' washing, and after they have said their slow ceremonial farewells he rushes downstairs to the garden to play with his gun-dogs, and is back again in no time to give restraining advice to some university students who have called to tell him about a meditated demonstration against Mr. Stoyadinovitch. Yet these two are steady as pillars. They are pillars supporting that invisible house which we must have to shelter us if we are not to be blown away by the winds of nature. Now, when I go through a town of which I know nothing, a town which appears to be a waste land of uniform streets wholly without quality, I look on it in wonder and hope, since it may hold a Mehmed, a Militsa.

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