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

Macedonia (South Serbia)
 

Matka

AFTER a ten-mile drive from Skoplje we arrived at the little monastery which is called Matka, or the Mother, because it is kind to barren women though it is dedicated to St. Andrew. I was a little disappointed because last year it had been painted Reckitts blue and what is known in Scotland as sweetie pink, but this year it was plain white. "I thought we would have a change," the priest said. It is hard to imagine such a radical change being applied to, say, the parish church of Steeple Ashton without some letters being written to The Times. We looked over the monastery, which was typical of its kind. There is the outer gate, the orchard and paddock, and then the enclosure containing the church and the priest's little house and a building with a stable underneath and a staircase running up to a gallery with guest rooms opening off it. It was in fact something of a religious centre, something of a fortress where Christians could forgather without being sniped at by the Moslems, and something of a country club where the peasants could have their bean-feasts and be sure of decent company. This last purpose the monasteries still subserve: many people came out to Matka from Skoplje to have lunch in the orchard. We told the priest, who was a handsome and intelligent young Serbian, that we would do the same, after we had been to see another monastery a mile or so away.

Our path ran towards a mountain gorge along a river-bank that was torn by the rawness of some engineering enterprise; on a wooden platform by the water we saw a score or so of white-capped Albanians, flung down in sleep. We passed through a little makeshift village, plainly built for workmen, which ended in a pretty house with a well-kept garden, where a handsome family were eating their midday meal. "Priyutno," called Constantine, using the Serbian equivalent for bon appetit. "Priyatno," they answered in chorus, the children chirping like little birds. The road became a rough path overhung by rock, the river a torrent running far below, the valley a narrow gorge penetrating densely wooded hills rising to barren peaks. On a broad ledge under dripping cliffs, here hung with purple flowers, among wind-swept trees that leaned laterally over the abyss, we found the little monastery . It was minute and in poor repair, but it had kept its frescoes. A bar of sunlight struck through a gap in the wall and lay on the anguished figure of the Virgin Mary lifting Christ down from the Cross, like a finger laid by nature on the corrupt spot which the animal world has contracted by its development of consciousness: its liability to grief. Bitter what consciousness brings us, yet bitter beyond anything the loss of it; that the painter showed us in the figure of Christ, which was typically Serbo-Byzantine. In too many Western pictures Christ looks as if He were wholly dying, and as if He were making an unmanly fuss over it considering his foreknowledge of the Resurrection. But in all these Macedonian frescoes death is shown working on the body that is bound to the spirit of Christ, wringing the breath out of the lungs as a laundress wrings water out of a shirt, taking the power out of the muscles and nerves like a dentist drawing a tooth whose roots drive down through the whole body. There is demonstrated that separateness of the flesh which Proust once noted, in a passage which describes how we think in our youth that our bodies are identical with ourselves, and have the same interests, but discover later in life that they are heartless companions who have been accidentally yoked with us, and who are as likely as not in our extreme sickness or old age to treat us with less mercy than we would have received at the hands of the worst bandits.

"Are they not beautiful, these frescoes?" Constantine said to my husband. "You will see that in all these Serbo-Byzantine works the feeling is terribly deep. It is ecstatic, yet far deeper than mere ecstasy, far deeper than Western art when it becomes excited, as in the case of Matthias Griinewald." "What is that?" asked Gerda, who had been quite quiet all the morning. "You are not going to tell me that the man who painted these wretched daubs and smears was greater than our wonderful Matthias Griinewald?" "No, no," said poor Constantine, "I only said that here was a different feeling." "Then what is the use of comparing theme" said Gerda. "I know you did it for only one purpose, to prove that everything here is finer than in Germany." We left them in the monastery to settle this disagreement, and went a little way along a path that led to the head of a gorge, but it was slimy with recent rains, and we turned back. "Oh, God, I am so tired of this!" my husband said. "It is all very well for you to say that some day somebody will hit her," I said, "but when will it begin?"

Constantine and Gerda were ready to go when we got back, but it was evident as they walked in front of us that he was still making every effort to placate her. "It is horrid," I said, "to see him being specially nice to her because she has been specially nasty." "He is preposterously good to her," said my husband, "but why is it that Jews like Germans so much, when Germans do not like Jews? You know, they were very happy in Germany until Hitler came; and I honestly believe that if you gave Constantine the chance of getting rid of Gerda, he would not take it, not only because he is a faithful soul and she is the mother of his children, but because he really likes her society." "I believe Constantine is moved by prestige," I said. "Most Western culture comes to the Slavs and to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe through Germany and Austria, and so they respect everything German and Austrian, and are left with an uneasy suspicion that if Germans and Austrians despise the Slavs and the Jews there must be something in it." "What you are saying is frightful," said my husband, "for it means that there is no hope for Europe unless in a multiplication of nationalisms of the most narrow and fanatical sort. For obviously Slavs and Jews cannot counteract this influence except by believing themselves rather more wonderful than the truth can guarantee, by professing the most extreme Zionism or Pan-Slavism."

In front of us Constantine and Gerda had stopped, just above the tangle of engineering works by the river. When we came up Constantine said, "I would like to see what is going on here, for it seems to me that it may be something very interesting. For we are doing the most wonderful things here in Macedonia. If the Italians and Americans had done them the whole world would be clapping their hands." This is a boast for which there is a good deal of foundation. Until the war Skoplje was a dust-heap surrounded by malarial marshes, and most of the towns in the province were as unhealthy. Now many people brought up in Serbia or Hungary live here all the year round, with at most the months of July and August on holiday, and keep their health and spirits. This is the result of much competent engineering, often planned with genius. "So let us go down," said Constantine, and we started to look for a path. But before we could find it, a man with grey hair and burning black eyes hurried out to us from the house where we had seen the family eating in the arbour. Yes, we might see the works, indeed we must see them, for he was in charge of them and he could tell us that they were going to result in a hydro-electric plant such as the world could never have dreamed would be set up in Macedonia, that had been the wash-pot of the Turks, a large hydro-electric plant, a huge one, a colossal one; in default of another adjective, his hands fluttered across the sun as he explained its vastness. "A pride," he called over his shoulder as he led the way down the hillside, "a great pride for Yugoslavia!" Talk of an angel, as the vulgar say; we had been talking of nationalism.

There was a ladder to drop down; and we stood in the river-bed, drained now of its water, so that a dam might be built. Here it had been wholly overhung, so it was as if we stood in a cavern. Above us was the gleaming nudity of the rocks uncovered now for the first time since prehistoric days, and sculptured here and there by the eddying waters into whorls like casts of gigantic muscular arms; and in wooden galleries pinned to the rock face Albanians were working by the light of lamps chat gave their white skull-caps and clothes a soft moth-wing brightness. From them proceeded the ringing sounds and the sudden flares of riveting. It was entrancing to contemplate the state of their minds, which knew nothing at all between the primitive and hydro-electricity. The man with grey hair and burning black eyes was pouring into our ears explanations of which we could not understand one single word, since it is the flaw in the state of mind of our sort hardly indeed preferable to that of the Albanians that we know nothing whatever of the mechanical means which condition our lives at every turn, when Constantine interrupted to ask him if he employed only Albanians. The man with grey hair glared at us out of the terrible sober drunkenness of fanaticism, which is punished by no deterrent headache, expelled by no purging sickness. "Why do you call them Albanians?" he cried. "Now all are Yugoslavs!" In the dusk his eyes were flames.

I grieved. It is notorious that many of the Albanians who became Yugoslavs under the Peace Treaty consented to the change with the utmost reluctance, and that the Government was obliged to adopt an extremely stern policy against them. I use the word "obliged" because I do not believe that any government in the history of the world has ever conducted such an enterprise as the pacification of Macedonia without resorting to ferocity. But I suspected the manager of being one of those bigots who would keep up this severity after the time for it had passed. However, he went on to say, "I do indeed try to employ this particular kind of Yugoslav, because they are such excellent fellows. That foreman over there, you cannot believe how good he is, how loyal, how careful of the work and his workmen. I feel to him as if he were my brother." I had seen this happening before in Macedonia; the irresistible charm of the Albanians works on all other Slavs, on the most hardhearted patriots sent down from the north, and the ancient grudge is forgotten. Men are wiser than they mean to be, and very different from what they think they are. Looking round the echoing cavern, before we left it, the grey-haired man said, "It was hard to get the river-bed dry for the building of the dam, for there were many springs gushing out of the rock. Many wonderful springs," he repeated reverently, speaking more like a Serb, born with an inherited instinct for water worship, than like an expert on hydro-electricity.

When we were at the top of the shaft again we said good-bye to him, and the parting was deeply emotional on the part of the grey-haired man and Constantine. "You have done a heavy work for Yugoslavia!" cried Constantine, shaking both his hands. "What work is heavy if it is done for Yugoslavia?" answered the other. When we went on our way Constantine was still hopping and jumping with excitement and cried out, "Is it not wonderful what difficulties we have surmounted? And think what it will mean when it is finished! The whole of the valley down to Skoplje shall be full of light, and there will be many factories, and we will be rich, rich, like Manchester and America." "Really," said Gerda, "one would think you had done it yourself." "Well, did I not do a little of it myself?"  shouted Constantine. "Did I not fight in the Great War, and was I not terribly wounded? Did I not so buy Macedonia with my blood? And shall I not then be glad because it is no longer the desert and shambles it was under the Turks?" Gerda shrugged her shoulders and walked on with an air of cool good sense. Constantine threw himself in her path so that she should not go on, demanding, "Do you laugh at your husband because he has paid a price of blood for his country?" My husband said, in a voice which suggested that he was also willing to pay a price of blood, "I think it is time we had lunch."

In the paddock a table had been laid for us under an apple tree, now in the last days of its flowering tirpe, and the priest sat waiting for us there. At another table there was a party of young men who were getting drunk, not hastily or greedily, but slowly and gently. The apple blossom was drifting down on our table at about the same pace. One of them was already quite drunk and was lying asleep on the grass, covered by a blanket. The priest had filled our glasses with some wine of the Macedonian sort which is good to drink but which tastes hardly at all of grapes, which might just as well be distilled from pears or quinces, and had set out some good rough bread and a plate of dyed Easter eggs. The priest pressed us to eat the eggs so warmly that I thought they must be all we were to have for lunch, and I took two. But there came some sheep's cheese, which, when it is fresh and not too salt, is as bland to the palate as its shining whiteness is to the eye. "Oh, there is more to come,"  said the priest, when I made my inquiries. "We have good food here, thank God, though we do not get such good fish as easily as we used to do before they started building the dam. But it is wonderful the snares the devil lays for us. It was through that fish that my poor old predecessor got into such trouble, you know."

"What was that story, now? I've never quite got the rights and wrongs of it," said Constantine, who had of course never heard of it till that moment. "Well, the root of the trouble was that our fish was simply the best in the neighbourhood and we were famous for it," said the priest. So when Mr. Yeftitch, who was Prime Minister before Mr. Stoyadinovitch, came to stay with the Metropolitan at Skoplje, the Metropolitan was very anxious to give him the best entertainment he could, so he sent a hundred and twenty dinars to the old priest who was here then, and told him to send back as much fish as he could. But the old priest was too old to fish for himself, so he asked a peasant to do it for him. And the peasant was full of the honour of the occasion, and said, 'Here is a matter of a Prime Minister from Belgrade and the Metropolitan, I must do the best that I can,' so he got a stick of dynamite, for though he knew it was unlawful he did not think there would be any question of law when a Prime Minister and a Metropolitan wanted a good dinner. So he got an immense load of fish, and he took it to the old priest, and the old priest said, 'What have you done?' But he was a very honest old priest, and he felt that the Metropolitan had paid for this fish, so he sent it to him, but as it went into the town the customs officers saw it and said, 'But what is this great load? ' And they were answered, 'Fish for the Metropolitan! ' So the police went to the Metropolitan, and said, 'But you must not dynamite fish, even though you are the Metropolitan.' So he said, 'But I have not dynamited fish,' and when the matter was explained he was very angry with the old priest. And as the police did not believe the Metropolitan, and as the Metropolitan did not believe the old priest, I do no  think the matter was ever made quite clear to everybody, though it will be in Heaven."

There came then a tureen of very strong chicken soup, which we ate with great pleasure, while the young men at the other table sang a melancholy folk-song very, very slowly. It was as if they had put their arms round the neck of the emotion of unrequited love and were leaning on her while, preoccupied with her sadness, she led them to the end of the song. In the middle of it one of them realized that the music was in charge of them and that they were not in charge of it, and he sang a few notes with the force and decision of a sergeant-major. This aroused the man who was lying on the grass, and he threw the blanket back from his face. A flower petal fell on his face, which was clouded with a look of caution and guile until he recognized what it was. After the effort of bringing his hand up to his face to brush it away, his eyes closed again, but a sheepdog that was nosing around the paddock came and sniped him, and ran away before he had time to push it away. He began to feel that too much was happening to him, he sat up, he cast away his blanket and revealed that he was in acrobat's clothes, in a striped vest and shorts. Angrily he stared about him, saw his friends, and shook his head, grieved at their condition. Alone he must assert control over this universe which was getting out of hand. He rolled over and began to perform athletic feats, to lie on his abdomen and slowly lift his chest and his knees from the ground, to bend backwards and make a bridge with his hands and his feet.

There was admirable cold lamb next, and the sheepdog came for the bones. "It is a good dog, a very good dog," said the priest. "He is wonderful with the wolves. Last winter my servant called to me when I was in church and told me she had seen him outside the wall fighting with two wolves, and one he had hurt so that it ran howling into the hills, and the other one had turned tail and had run down the valley with him after it. And I went after him, because he is a very good dog, and I found he had chased the wolf for three kilometres till he came to a village where a peasant shot the wolf. I had this dog as a puppy from an old woman they called Aunt Persa in these parts, and he has something of her nature. She was a comitadji, just like a man, and she had three husbands, and all she killed because they were not politically sound. One would go with the Turks, and one would go with the Bulgars though he was a Serb because there were so many Bulgars in the village that he felt safer so, and one would go with the Greeks. She was a nurse in the Balkan wars, but she fought as much as she nursed, and she was wounded many times. Then when she was too old to marry or to fight she became a nun and lived as a hermit in a monastery up in the mountains here, that is a thousand years old. She made a very good nun." I remembered Pausanias and his sensible opinion that the worshippers at a lonely temple who were always losing their priestesses through rape and flight should choose a woman, old in years, who had had enough of the company of men. "I used to go up and see her, and one day she gave me this puppy which her dog had had. But now she is dead, and the monastery is deserted. Last summer I went up to see how it might be, and the porch had fallen in, and in the paddock I saw twelve wolves. They would not have been there if Aunt Persa had still been alive."

There came yet another dish, a curious and admirable mixture of trout and chicken. Our distended stomachs thanked God it was the last. When the priest had stopped piling our plates he sat with his chin cupped in his hand and his elbows on the table, enjoying the rosy pleasantness of the early afternoon. Behind us the drunken young men at the table confided themselves to another song which they sang so slowly that to all intents and purposes it ceased to have a tune, but simply reserved the atmosphere for its melancholy. The acrobat was now standing on his head with an uncanny air of permanence. "I would like," said the priest, looking up at the grey peak which dominates this valley, "to have a huge flagstaff planted in the rock up there, to fly the hugest Yugoslavian flag ever made." He cast a defiant glance at us. "I suppose your European friends will despise me for that wish. I said the same thing to a French doctor who was here last summer, and he said, 'If you were a Catholic priest you would want to set there an enormous statue of the Virgin Mary, but because you are an Orthodox priest you want to put up a huge national flag,' and I think he meant it as a reproach. But I said to him, 'You speak as one who does not know that this country was not for the Virgin Mary until our flag had flown here.'" The acrobat quivered, collapsed on the grass, and instantly fell asleep, and his friends began to sing "John Brown's Body." "It is an old song of our comitadji," explained the priest.

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