CLASSIC THOUGHTS / A beak in our veins: Angus Macqueen on Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (Canongate, pounds 9.99)

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The Independent Culture
'THE JOURNEY out of Sarajevo is leisurely, evasive and lovely. One looks down for the last time on the hundred minarets, the white houses and the green flames of the poplars.' Rebecca West's magisterial account of her journeys around Yugoslavia in the Thirties is much more than mere travelogue: it is an entrancing, challenging narrative woven from history, thoughts on nationalism and insights into the intellectual world of the Thirties, spiced with pungent asides.

When I first read it ten years ago, the chapter headings were an exotic tourist itinerary of the Balkans; today Split, Trebinye, Mostar and of course Sarajevo have become part of a litany of battlefields. The trip with West into the Sarajevo market with its peasants 'who could have made a single mouthful of a Victorian traveller, green umbrella and all', will never be the same.

However redolent of a lost world, this was never a dewy-eyed piece of nostalgia. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is compulsory reading for anyone half interested in what has happened over the past three years. Indeed, when the book was published in 1942, the country West celebrates was already being torn apart by war along familiar Serb-Croat lines. Beauty and horror are never far apart. It is a story, as she writes of Serb history, 'which celebrates a death-wish but its hidden meaning pulses with life'.

When West arrives in Zagreb with her husband, they are met by three friends of hers, a Serb poet, a Croat journalist and a Dalmatian mathematician. 'They are standing in the rain and they are all different and they are all the same. They greet us warmly and in their hearts they cannot greet each other.' The arguments among the three and their British guests provides a charged intellectual framework.

Her telling of history always reflects its living importance to the people she meets, be it the terrible defeat of the Serbs at the Field of Blackbirds in 1389 or the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Her narrative dives in and out of the past at will. It perfectly captures the way time is always relative when you drink potent nationalist brews of myth and history.

For those who argue that the present horrors show history repeating itself, the book provides powerful arguments. Few of her thoughts about Serbs or Croats seem dated. Images of the lamb and falcon of the title occur throughout the book and stand as symbols of death, sacrifice and resurrection: 'We shall find out why we draw the knife across the throat of the black lamb or take its place on the offensive rock, and why we let the grey falcon nest in our bosom, though it buries its beak in our veins.'

However steeped in the wonder and the madness, Rebecca West always retains a clear eye. When she considers the peasant women, mercilessly overworked and abused by their men, she exclaims: 'I will eat my hat if these women were not free in the spirit. They passed the chief test I knew. They looked happy when they had lost their youth.'