on 2 January 2008
A middle-class englishwoman and her banker husband travel round Yugoslavia in the 1930s. Sounds dull, but it's actually one of the most engrossing books I have read for a long time - all 1200 pages of it. The digressions on the history of the Republic of Dubrovnik, Diocletian's palace in Split, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand etc are absolutely magical.
West has some odd ideas about religion and monarchy. She seems to be an Islamophobe and a Turkophobe, and I don't entirely like what she writes about Jews. She is an unashamed Serbophile in a way that is most unfashionable these days, and she has scant sympathy for anyone else's nationalism, but her heart and brain are undoubtedly in the right place.
Worth a read by anyone interested in the history of the Balkans, though not to be read uncritically.
on 21 December 1999
After reading some of the history of the Balkans, all other authors recommended this book, and after reading it I can see why. It is the format others try to obtain. She keeps the reader waiting for the next corner in not only her travels but in history. It puts into perspective todays turmoil.
on 25 September 2011
To summarise this review, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in: travel writing of any form, Balkan culture or history, the history of the Great European powers of the 19th century or simply to someone trying to understand why (ex-)Yugoslavia is where it is today. Having a passing interest in any one of the above categories is enough to qualify you for a recommendation. Along the way you will probably be captured by Rebecca West's beautiful writing, some captivating personal stories and anecdotes and will quite possibly end up wanting to get on the next plane to Belgrade or Skoplje to see the place for yourself.
As another reviewer has already been pointed out, this is not an objective travel guide, and makes no attempt to be. It is Rebecca West's personal account of her experiences in Yugoslavia, and as such is seen through the eyes of a liberal, progressive woman writer in the late 1930s. After travelling to Yugoslavia on three occasions for work and leisure, West fell in love with the country, and decided to summarise her experiences of it into this book.
The result is a comprehensive 'Journey through Yugoslavia' in book form. It is a journey seen through the eyes of a passionate, energetic, extremely perceptive and very subjective lady; it is also conditioned by the prevailing attitudes of the time, though in itself I found that this almost made the book even more interesting, as it is interesting to see how retrograde enlightened English culture was in some ways back then (eg in the prevalent homophobia and in the underlying assumption of the superiority of Christianity).
West talks in depth about the peasant culture that she encounters all around her, but she also makes sure to provide the reader with enough historical context to understand why the people and cultures she meets developed as they have - something sorely lacking from most travel literature. As a result we learn a great deal about the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Venetian Empires along the way. She is also a very intelligent observer of human traits and characteristics, and passionate about art, and it is not rare for her to share with the reader her reflections on the nature of art, or of humanity and human behaviour, sometimes straying much further into the field of philosophy than you would expect to find in 'travel' writing.
But as I said before, this work is much more than just a piece of travel writing. The 'story' of the book follows West as she travels through Yugoslavia with her husband, takes us through breathtaking landscapes, introduces us to the colourful and fiery cast of characters she meets along her travels and who often guide her opinions, opens our eyes to a rich and largely unknown culture and intersperses these recollections with a selection of historical interludes, to acquaint us with the dramatic history of the region, or at least the episodes which most marked and changed it. All of this is painted with the elegant, colourful pen of West's writing, which makes the book a real pleasure to read.
on 18 February 2001
Never before and never after have the mind of this tortured region - the Balkan - been thus penetrated: with such passionate, humane precision, with such eloquence, with such empathy and such conviction. A classic, if ever there was any, a masterpiece without a doubt. It is as fresh as yesterday's news and as ancient as the monasteries it describes. It is an eternal work, a must for Balkan afficionados, a work of scholarship and love. Influenced by it, I wrote this (in my 'After the Rain - How the West Lost the East'): 'The Balkans is the unconscious of the world...It is here that the repressed memories of history, its traumas and fears and images reside. It is here that the psychodynamics of humanity - the tectonic clash between Rome and Byzantium, West and East, Judeo-Christianity and Islam - is still easily discernible.' Thank you, Rebecca West. Sam Vaknin, author of 'After the Rain - How the West Lost the East'.
on 6 November 1998
This book is, without a doubt, the greatest travel book ever written. Encylopaedic in its depth and scope, it is the vastly readable account of Dame Rebecca West's pre-war journeys through the Balkans. But it is more than a mere travelogue--it says much about the human predicament in general. It is impossible to understand the current problems in the former Yugoslavia without this book.
on 1 October 2013
I learned a lot from reading this book. It is thoughly researched with excellent and valid references. The book provides for a better understanding of the background for the recent wars of the 1990s. This part of the world has been and still is exploited by the world powers that create divisions among the people of these lands. Anyone interested in that part of the world, now that all of history is being re-written, should read this book.
on 26 April 2013
This book is a marvel, a fine crafted diamond of travel and history.
Written literally just before world war 2, it contains a vivid history of the various different peoples and country's that made up Yugoslavia in the first half of the 20th century.
Mandatory reading if one wishes to understand the later wars and politics of the Balkan region.
on 28 February 2011
I am so delighted that I can get this book on my Kindle. I have loved it ever since I first encountered it 15 years ago, when I first started working in Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. I bought it because someone I admired and respected in Montenegro said "The only foreigner who ever truly understood our people was Rebecca West." I found that it is not only full of insights and wonderful encounters, but also a masterpiece of English prose. I heard somewhere that Paul Theroux called it the best travel book of the 20th century; if he didn't, he should have!
I must confess that have never read it from beginning to end. It is an eminently 'dippable' book - just the kind of text to have on a Kindle, to read chapters or sections whenever the mood takes you.
There is a passage at very the end of the Prologue (the last two paragraphs) that captures the quintessence of what I, like Rebecca West, love about the Balkans, and is written in the most stunning prose. It always beings tears to my eyes when I read it. In the very unlikely event that I ever appeared on Desert Island Discs, this would be my choice of book!
on 30 September 2015
Her 'told-to-the-children' tone initially grates, and she confusingly calls the Congress of Berlin (when Serbia gained independence) the Treaty of Berlin, but her feistiness wins through. I found her remarks about 'wonderful' long-lived sovereigns, with a healthy tincture of republicanism, singularly apt! I don't have the Geoff Dyer intro. I plunged straight in. It promises to be quite some trip
on 17 December 2012
This book is one of the best ever written. However, whenever the author muses on the subject of Christianity and Theology, I find her strangely incoherent. For example:
"It is not possible to kill goodness. There is always more of it, it does not take flight from our accursed earth, it perpetually asks us to take what we need from it.
Of that lesson we had profited hardly at all because resourcefulness rises from the rock like the stench of its blood. The cruel spirit which informed it saved itself by a ruse, a theological ruse."
Personally, I do not think Ms West knows what she is talking about or whatever thoughts she has on this subject have something to do with guilt and a son who apparently resented her.
Nevertheless, it is with this notable theological exception, a very fine read indeed.