[Book Review] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West

Rating: ★★★★(maybe around 4.5)

Whoah! I just finished to read this 1100-page-book. Reading a thick book is like a journey that you travel all the 50 US states but is still counted as one-country visit.

After the trip to Croatia in last July, I learned Croatia and other former Yugoslavian countries have entangled and interesting history. People are usually familiar with history of Western European countries(UK, France) or US history  but the history in Balkan peninsula would be less familiar to many people. The trip to Croatia encouraged me to learn deeper about its cultural background and history. Before the trip, I never imagined that Croatia history would go back to very first century AD.

At first, it was quite challenging to search. You can much more easily find history books about Henry the 8th and his six wives rather than this part of history, to be honest. While searching, I encountered this book in one of travel blogs(I think it might be Rick Steves) and decided to give it a try. Then, I went to my school’s library. After half an hour, I found it and my very first impression was “daunting”. ‘How can I carry the book?’ That was my first concern. But luckily, I have a kindle so I didn’t have to suffer from the weight of the physical book.

Rebecca West and her husband traveled to Balkan peninsula from Croatia to Albania. This book was written on the brink of the World War 2, so it might have been different from current situation in that area. But a magnificent blend of travel journal, cultural commentary, and historical insight, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon probes the troubled history of the Balkans and the uneasy relationships among its ethnic groups. This book is much beyond Lonely Planet. 

The cover of the book is the famous bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was a terrible genocide in 1993 in Mostar. It was a cruel conflict between Croatian(catholic) and Bosnian(Muslim). Eventually, they ended the siege and the bridge (Stari Mostar),connecting Muslim area and Catholic area, now symbolizes as peace resolution between them. Rebecca West might have foreseen this tragedy.

The landscape and the people of Yugoslavia are brilliantly observed as West untangles the tensions that rule the country’s history as well as its daily life. Rebecca West not only has vast knowledge on politics and history but also she had a lot of good and thought provoking conversations with local people.  On the sentence-by-sentence level, her writing is exceptional in its clarity and its striking imagery, by turns witty and beautiful. ‘She was one of those widows whose majesty makes their husbands seem specially dead’, she says of one woman; and of another, ‘It is true that she was plump as an elephant, but she was so beautiful that the resemblance only served to explain what it is that male elephants feel about female elephants.’ On another occasion, after a long description of Orthodox priests chanting hymns, she concludes with extraordinary sensitivity:

If there be a God who is fount of all goodness, this is the tribute that should logically be paid to Him; if there be only goodness, it is still a logical tribute.

It is rare to find a travel book that builds a cumulative argument, let alone an argument that can be sustained over more than a thousand pages. Ultimately what makes Black Lamb so astonishing for me is that Rebecca West uses the gifts I outlined above to probe the depths of the human condition in a very clear-sighted way. As West travels, Europe is on the edge of war: as she publishes, the killing is well underway. What makes humans behave like this?

It’s the sort of grandiose question that usually gets grandiose, evasive answers. But not here. West thinks long and hard about it and she is characteristically blunt in her conclusions. For her there is a systemic problem with the Christianity that underpins western culture, simply because it’s built on the idea of a human sacrifice, and that leaves us fundamentally unsure about right and wrong.

We are continually told to range ourselves with the crucified and the crucifiers, with innocence and guilt, with kind love and cruel hate. Our breasts echo for ever with the cries ‘In murdering goodness we sinned’ and ‘By murdering goodness we were saved.’ ‘The lamb is innocent and must not be killed,’ ‘The dead lamb brings us salvation,’ so we live in chaos.

She goes further than this, though. (She always goes further.) When, in Macedonia, West witnesses a lamb being sacrificed in real life, she grasps that this internal chaos mentioned above has very dark consequences for human society and conflict; indeed, for civilised nations this is a paradox that can make us want to be defeated, even when – especially when – fighting for a good cause.

We believed in our heart of hearts that life was simply this and nothing more, a man cutting the throat of a lamb on a rock to please God and obtain happiness; and when our intelligence told us that the man was performing a disgusting and meaningless act, our response was not to dismiss the idea as a nightmare, but to say, ‘Since it is wrong to be the priest and sacrifice the lamb, I will be the lamb and be sacrificed by the priest.’ We thereby set up a principle that doom was honourable for innocent things, and conceded that if we spoke of kindliness and recommended peace it was fitting that afterwards the knife should be passed across our throats. Therefore it happened again and again that when we fought well for a reasonable cause and were in sight of victory, we were filled with a sense that we were not acting in accordance with divine protocol, and turned away and sought defeat, thus betraying those who had trusted us to win them kindliness and peace.

The implications of this extraordinary passage, when it comes to war, are fully explored. West hates war, but she also hates ‘the fatuousness of such pacifism as points out the unpleasantness of war as if people had never noticed it before’.

That non-resistance paralyses the aggressor is a lie: otherwise the Jews of Germany would all be very well today.

Some causes are worth fighting for, even though doing so feels abhorrent. As far as I’m concerned, this insight has never been better expressed:

I had to be willing to fight for it even though my own cause could not fail to be repulsive to me, since the essence of civilization was disinclination to violence, and when I defended it habit would make me fear that I was betraying it.

This is the meaning of the book’s title, drawn from a Serbian fable about religious sacrifice. In the global conflict erupting around her, Rebecca West could see emerging the same impulses and psychological currents that she had been studying and thinking about for years, ebbing and flowing throughout history and crystallised in the story of Yugoslavia: because human beings are a species that have evolved just enough intelligence to know that what we do is terrible, but not enough to go beyond it; and that leaves us unable to fight for our better nature with conviction.

For we have developed enough sensibility to know that to be cruel is vile, and therefore we would not wish to be the priest whose knife made the blood spurt from the black lamb’s throat; and since we still believed the blood sacrifice to be necessary we were left with no choice, if we desired a part in the service of the good, but to be the black lamb.

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon finishes with bombs falling on London. The author reflects Often, when I have thought of invasion, or a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb.’ Amen. How extraordinary these people are and how extraordinary it is that we have understood them so little. How extraordinary this book is, a true masterpiece.




Author: amysfernweh

Hi, this is Amy. I'm a data scientist but I like reading, going to art museums and traveling for my free time. If you want to connect with me, shoot me an email:amygko@gmail.com. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “[Book Review] Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West”

  1. This book may be my favorite work of literature. I read it after a “14 countries in 14 days” trip, where I briefly visited every country in the Balkans, and that combined with a series of fortuities led me to read this book. I took issue with some of her conclusions around the “black lamb” section, but her description was so compelling that I ended up writing a paper about it for a course. I will read it again, I’m sure. Thank you for your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! I haven’t visited every country in Balkan besides Croatia. I agree with you that some part of her writings may sound biased and that’s why I didn’t completely give full 5 stars. It’s still an amazing work with sharp observations, though! I don’t think I ‘ll read it again in near future(the length is still overwhelming) but would love to when I get to visit Balkan peninsula again.

      Liked by 1 person

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