Dispatches from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: Dalmatia

Ed. note: I wasn’t going to publish this, because I’m not sure I like it, and I suspect I’m wrong and displaying ignorance more than once. But I also kind of detest seeing a post stuck in draft form that I spent some time on. And also this is just a blog and nobody’s probably going to read it, so, what the hell. For what it’s worth I wish I’d done all the sections of the book this way, but better. But the book got away from me and I wasn’t willing to spend the rest of the year on one book alone, however brilliant and compelling it may have been, all the way through. Maybe someday I’ll try again. Maybe someday I’ll live forever. – dmd3


“Bare hills, and young men that shout, both the product of human incompetence, of misgovernment. That is the immediate impression given by North Dalmatia.”

For various reasons, not least of which is the realization that I’m trying to settle into reading a 1100+ page travelogue and history about a region and a time I have next-to-no real context for or recognizable personal relationship with, my reading throughout this section became a bit more scattershot, a chapter here, a chapter there, with little sense that I was synthesizing the various histories and events into a recognizable set of consistent themes or convenient take-aways. But I think this worked fairly well for this section, in which West and her husband move around much more more than they did in the Croatia section, with nearly every chapter of the Dalmatia section taking place in a new city, each with its own more self-contained history.

It’s also a polite reminder that if a 1100+ book could be easily summarized, there’d be no point in reading the damn thing. So!

Still, a few themes carried through. If the Croatia section focused on the historical influence of Austria and Hungary, we see more references to Italy and Turkey in the Dalmatian region. In general, this region, to West, feels like one that been left not well served by its history, and I’m not particularly certain, even when she’s describing the beauty of the region, or bringing strains of its history to life, that she particularly enjoyed her time here. (Of Fiume: “[A] town that has the quality of a dream, a bad headachy dream.” Of Gruzh, near Dubrovnik: “[H]ere the Dalmatian coast utterly loses the barrenness which the traveller from the North might have thought its essential quality.”)

While I didn’t call them out specifically earlier in the book, her concerns with gender roles and class struggles do surface several times throughout her time in the Dalmatian region. Her response to the occupation of Fiume (which she only actually passes through, briefly, in the book) by the writer-turned-self-made-dictator Gabriele D’Annunzio (“an adventure which, in mindlessness, violence, and futility exactly matched his deplorable literary works”) makes for some icy burn:

“All this is embittering history for a woman to contemplate. I will believe that the battle of feminism is over, and that the female has reached a position of equality with the male, when I hear that a country has allowed itself to be turned upside-down and led to the brink of war by its passion for a totally bald woman writer…. Here in Fiume the bald author has been allowed to ruin a city: a bald-headed authoress would never be allowed to build one.”

On the flip side, she compares, in Korchula, a certain kind of masculinity that she sees in three men working in a shipyard (“These were men, they could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their worlds.”) with what she suggests is prevalent back home in England (“…overweight and puffy, who can drive a car but knows no other mastery over material, who presses buttons and turns switches without comprehending the result…”).

Her visit to Rab highlights the contrast between the rich and the poor, and she goes into exhaustive detail about the historical caste and governmental systems of Dubrovnik. (Though it’s also in Dubrovnik she notes the passage of some of the earliest anti-slavery legislation in history, in 1417.) Her time in Split, while recognize the critical importance of Slav nationalism, also highlights the difficult relationship between people and the very concept of central authority, which stands in contrast to English attitudes; as West’s husband says, of the people they’ve met in Split, and their relationship to the rule of Yugoslavia from Belgrade: “These people are born and trained rebels. They cry out when they see a government as if it were a poisonous snake, and seize a stick to kill it with, and in that they are not being fanciful. All the governments they have known till now have been, so far as they are concerned, poisonous snakes.”


A couple of other odd observations I’d like to throw down without going to too much trouble over just yet:

  • If there’s a theme that starts to tie these various threads and histories together—and there’s plenty of fantastically related histories I’ve not even begun to allude to here—it’s West’s sense that the “quality of visibility…makes the Balkans so specially enchanting.” Which, at least, on the surface, is an odd observation, from someone who uses every bit of sculpture work she can find to launch into the exhaustive histories of the people she’s meeting.
  • The above feels tied to an ongoing interest in peasantry: “There is nothing precious about this Dalmatian civilization. It rests on a basis of good peasant sense.”
  • If she’s come to Yugoslavia to see “what history meant in flesh and blood,” what I think she’s finding is history in the act of repairing itself, history that’s responding to the endless history that’s come before it. It feels a bit like what I imagine America might be like today if we weren’t working so hard to forget that some of the most fucked up shit we’ve been involved in or done to ourselves has happened a literal/historical eye-blink ago.
  • Maybe this is just me, but I find a bit of amazement in insight that comes from seeing what isn’t present, not just what is, and I found quite fascinating West’s observation, in Korchula, of the fact (assuming its a true one) that, set against all the natural advantages of the people of this area of the world, is the disadvantage that the “ideas of the French Revolution had never been talked out in this part of the world.”

Miscellaneous Quotables

On history:

“It is sometimes very hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of skunk.”

On Rab:

“Imagine finding a place where one heard perpetually a musical phrase which was different every time one moved a few steps, and was always exquisite. At Rab something comparable happens to the sight.”

Of rule by the sword:

“A society which is ruled by the sword can never be stable, if only because the sword is always passing from hand to hand, from the ageing to the young.”

Author: Darby

...is, or has described himself variously as, a reader, a litblogger, a critic, a design student, a designer, a developer, a fan of typewriters, a mediocre videogamer, an amateur painter, a dayjob holder, a guy, your new BFF.

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