Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the vast work penned by journalist and author Rebecca West, cannot be merely described as a memoir of her travels through Yugoslavia. It is also an editorial on Yugoslavia's history, culture, citizens, and politics. Written during the rise of Nazi Germany, West's book serves to illuminate some of the problems that existed in the Balkans, particularly between the various ethnic groups, which ultimately led to a divided nation. Much of what she covers in this book still rings true of this region.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is based on three trips that West made to Yugoslavia between 1936 and 1938. As she explains in the Prologue, prior to her travels there, she knew very little about the Balkans, other than it provided the backdrop to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 - the event that started World War I. That event is partly what inspired her to learn about this region's tumultuous history.
Beyond the descriptions of people, culture, and history, it is West's details about the places she sees that are the most moving and alluring. One wants to wander through the former Yugoslavia as she did, seeing the beauty of the land and cityscapes.
But this book isn't just about Yugoslavia. It is also about Europe on the brink of war. Germans infiltrate this book, just as they flocked to Yugoslavia in droves as the Nazis began their rise to power. Readers can sense Europe's mounting tension and increasing fear through her writing, a dark cloud which lingers over her experiences.
The problem with this book, aside from its length, is that it is certainly not objective (although other readers could certainly consider that a plus, rather than a minus). West doesn't merely record facts, she taints them with her own bias: her obvious hatred of Germans, her pro-Serb/anti-Croat stance, and her dislike of the Catholic church, among other things. Her prose seems narrow-minded and narcissistic at times, which made it difficult for me to read. It also tends to go off-track frequently, with stream of consciousness ramblings about relationships between men and women, as well as art and music.
This is considered one of the most important books written about this region, and that fact alone may make it worth reading. However, if you're looking for Balkan history that is more concise and straightforward, you may want to pick up something else. If you're traveling to that area, you may just want to bring a guidebook. It'll weigh much less.