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

Macedonia (South Serbia)
 
 
Afternoon at Struga

ON returning to our hotel we found to our considerable distress that because we had pleased the staff in some way there was being prepared for us a specially fine fish risotto; this made our fourth meal during the last four hours. We ate in falsely smiling gratitude under the ash trees by the lake, and then sat in a state of distension, trying to dilute ourselves with coffee. There minced by a slim old woman with gallantly dyed brown hair puffed forward and pinned down into a kind of cap, and a high net collar held to her lean neck by whalebones, picking her steps and swinging her reticule in reference to some standard of gentility that was obsolete and ridiculous, though she was not to be ridiculed, so poignant was her grief, her gallantry. I said, "That might be a Russian general's widow in a story by Tchekov," and lo, it was a Russian general's widow, who played the piano in a cafe down the street.

This set us wrangling about the Russian writers. My husband and I said we liked Dostoievsky and Turgeniev the best. My husband said that The Possessed seemed to him to cover every possible eventuality in moral life, and a great many of the particular eventualities of historical life which we were likely to face, and that in Turgeniev he found something that reminded him of Greek literature but without enough of effort or desire to make him feel that this was the world he knew. I said that I made my choice because all writers wanted to write the book that Dostoievsky had written in the Inquisitor's Dream in The Brothers Karamazov, and because all writers knew that all books should be written like On the Eve. But Constantine said, "No, you are wrong, Tolstoy was the greatest of them all." This I found hard to bear; for surely Tolstoy is the figure that condemns nineteenth-century Europe, which never would have been awed by him if it had not lost touch with its own tradition. Otherwise it would have recognized that everything Tolstoy ever said that was worth saying had been said far better by St. Augustine and various Fathers and heretics of the Fairly Church, who carried the argument far beyond the scope of his intellect. "But he was a great man, he was a great personality," said Constantine. "I remember reading that a Japanese had once come to see Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, and, seeing him, had gone straight back to Japan, in order that nothing might diminish the intensity of his impression, though he had always longed to see Europe." "But what was his impression, and what happened to him afterwards?" I asked, really wanting to know. "What does that matter?" said Constantine. "It is a question of " His hand reverently described a huge empty circle. There opened a vision of a world without content, where great men spoke and said nothing, where the followers listened and trembled and learned nothing, and existence was never transformed into life.

Dragutin strolled towards us along the edge of the lake, throwing in stones. He called out, "If we're going to spend the night at the Monastery of Sveti Naum we needn't start till five. Why don't we go and spend the afternoon at Struga, the famous Struga?" He began to sing the special song of Struga, which says that of all towns in the world it is the prettiest, which indeed is somewhere near the truth, as we had noted when we stopped there on our way from Skoplje. "Yes, let us do that," said my husband, and the others would not, so we went off alone.

It is an enchanting little place, white and clean like a peeled almond. It straddles the river Drin, which runs out of Lake Ochrid as much brighter than water as crystal is than glass, and its houses are white and periwinkle blue, and everywhere there are poplars and willows and acacias. It is only a country town, it does not bear the stamp of a great culture like Ochrid, but it is pretty, pretty enough to eat, and the minutes pass like seconds if one stands on the bridge and looks at this extravagantly clear water running under the piers, visible just to a point sufficient to give pleasure to the eye.

We walked about the town for a time and came on the church, with many people standing about in the churchyard and a multitude of gipsies sitting on the walls. Bishop Nikolai, they said, was holding a service inside, and there were sounds of ecstatic singing. We were told that when he came out with the procession the gipsies would get up and go into the church and worship silently, and then go home. They would not dream of going into the church while the house-dwelling Christians were still about. This confirmed my feeling of dislike for the gipsies, it was such a Puccini thing to do. But we had to linger for a few moments, for though they were all wearing Western clothes they had chosen them with such a valiant appetite for colour, laying orange by royal blue, scarlet by emerald, dun by saffron-yellow, that they outshone the most elaborate peasant costume, though there was not a garment amongst them which could not have been bought in Oxford Street.

"Let us go and see the eels," clamoured Dragutin, "let us go and see the eels." So at last we went to see the fisheries, where they catch eels in a pen of hurdles sunk in the unbelievably clear river. The fishers drew two out of the crystal water, themselves black crystal, and bound them together, alongside but with the head of one to the tail of the other, so that they could wriggle in the long grass under our inspection without getting a chance of liberty. Dragutin cried out in pleasure at this device. He was always happy when there were animals about, just as people who have a great deal of the child in them are happy with children, and when he saw men exercising control over animals he used to cheer heartily but without malice, as a schoolboy might cheer if he saw a wrestler from his own house overcoming one from another house. "And look," he said, pointing over the water-meadow to some wooden bungalows standing under poplars in long grass among many little canals, "there's the biological station. They've got a museum there, where you can see all the birds and beasts to be found in the district; you can go in if you like."

We left him playing with the eels. He liked living things, he said. But he would have recognized a brother in the old custodian who took us round the curious building, like a houseboat turned to scientific purposes, where stuffed animals, eagles and wolves, bears and wild cats, boars and snakes, stared glassily through a green dusk. He had precisely the same attitude towards animals. There was to him no greater division between himself and the beasts than there is between Serbs and Greeks, Bulgarians and Turks. When my husband said, "But this is an enormous wild boar," he explained that, in the no-man's-land between Yugoslavia and Albania, no hunting is allowed in the forests, and the wild boars take refuge there and grow fat on the acorns and chestnuts; and he grumbled, "Dort leben sie sehr gut," just as a Cockney might say of the Lord Mayor of London and his aldermen, "Turtle soup and port they 'ave, they don't live like us pore men."

He was glad that most of his charges were where they were, out of mischief, neatly stuffed, preserved for eternity by camphor balls in highly polished glass cases; but over one he mourned. This was a two-headed calf which was strangely lovely in form, it was like a design made for a bracket by the Adam brothers; its body had the modest sacrificial grace of all calves, and it was a shock to find that of the two heads which branched like candelabra one was lovely, but one was hideous, as that other seen in a distorting glass. "It was perfectly made," lamented the old man, "it was perfectly made." "Did it live after its birth?" asked my husband. "Did it live!" he exclaimed. "It lived for two days, and it should be alive today had it not been for its nature." "For its nature?" repeated my husband. "Yes, its nature. For the peasant who owned it brought it here to our great doctors as soon as it was born, and here it did well. I tell you, it was perfectly made. But for two days did the beautiful head open its mouth and drink the milk we gave it, and when it came to the throat, then did the ugly head hawk and spit it out. Not one drop got down to its poor stomach, and so it died." To have two heads, one that looks to the right and another that looks to the left, one that is carved by grace and another that is not, the one that wishes to live and the other that does not: this was an experience not wholly unknown to human beings. As we pressed our faces against the case, peering through the green dusk, our reflections were superimposed on the calf, and it would not have been surprising if it had moved nearer the glass to see us better.

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