Thursday, January 01, 2015

History in smithereens

Patrick Leigh Fermor At Rila Monastery, 1934


Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor is a good way to start off the new year. Fermor wrote about many things, but his fame stems from his account of a 1933-1934 hike across Europe. He intended a trilogy, and the first two volumes appeared decades ago. Severe writer's block descended on the prospective third volume, however, and Paddy Fermor was still revising his notes two weeks before his death at age 96.  The literary executors proceeded to decipher his legendary unintelligible handwriting and publish the third volume, The Broken Road:  From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, in 2013.  I purchased the book as soon as it was available in England, some months before being on sale in American bookstores.  For a number of reasons, I am only just now really starting to read it.

The account picks up with Fermor leaving the Danube at Vdin and entering Bulgaria, a country of particular and enduring interest to me.  Though hardly over a chapter into the book, I am already highlighting passages.

For historical context, there is this (on the road east out of Sofia):

This as far as history records is the great path from Europe to the Levant: the road to Constantinople and the gates of Asia.  It is the track of a hundred armies and the itinerary of those wonderful caravans from Ragusa that joggled their way to the Black Sea and Anatolia, just as their huge argosies of merchandise--when only Venice surpassed the little walled republic in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  Here, too, the Bulgarian inhabitants were at their most defenceless during the long night of subjection to Turkey.  The Ottoman 'beglerbeg' or viceroy of the Balkans, ranked as a three-tailed pasha, had his court and his garrison at Sofia, and between here and the capital, the Bulgars were powerless; the faintess stirrings would unloose a whirlwind of janissaries and spahis and later on, and perhaps the worst, bashi-bazouks.  They adorned the towns with avenues of gibbets, the burnt villages with pyramids of heads and the roadsides with impaled corpses.  I think it is an Arabian proverb which says, 'Where the Ottoman hoof has struck, the grass never grows again': and it is true that their occupation of the Balkans--in Bulgaria it started before the Wars of the Roses and ended after the Franco-Prussian War--has left desolation behind it.  Everything is still impoverished and haphazard, and history in smithereens.  The Turks were the last but one of the Oriental barbarians to cast their blight over Eastern Europe.

For a taste of pre-Hitlerian Europe, there is this (while walking east as the Orient Expresss passed by):

The pink lampshades glowed softly in the dining car, the brass gleamed.  The passengers would be lowering their novels and crosswords as the brown-jacketed attendants approached with trays of aperitifs.  I waved, but the gloaming was too deep for an answer.  I wondered who the passengers were--they had travelled in two days a journey that had taken me over nine months, and in a few hours they would be in Constantinople.  The necklace of bright lights dwindled in the distance with its freight of runaway lovers, cabaret girls, Knights of Malta, vamps, acrobats, smugglers, papal nuncios, private detectives, lecturers in the future of the novel, millionaires, arms' manufacturers, irrigation experts and spies, leaving a mournful silence in the thirsty Rumelian plateau.

Simply put, the man could write!

No comments: