Article by Peter Maass

Love and Fury in the Balkans

The Washington Post  |  August 20, 1997
Montenegro. By Starling Lawrence

By Starling Lawrence
Farrar Straus Giroux. 306 pp. $23

Reviewed by Peter Maass

There is a passage in Rebecca West’s classic book about the Balkans, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” in which she wrote of being waked in a Paris hotel room by “the insufficiently private life of my neighbors.” West heard the sound of three big slaps, and the sobbing of a woman who cried out, “Balkan! Balkan!” Whether the woman was shouting in pleasure or pain was not clear, and that’s why her exhortation was so intriguing. “Balkan” is a geopolitical term that signifies more than a place—it conveys pleasure and pain, everything dark and mysterious and exhilarating and frightening and magical about human passions. If the woman had shouted “Mideast! Mideast!” or “Australia! Australia!” she wouldn’t have been saying much. But “Balkan! Balkan!” is something else. The word. The place.

The strange allure of the Balkans is the subject of Starling Lawrence’s worthy historical novel “Montenegro.” It is the tale of a young British adventurer sent to Montenegro in 1908 to collect military information and mountain flowers on behalf of a powerful politician back home. Auberon Harwell, the botanist/spy, expects his trip will be a gallant jaunt, a way to avoid, at least for the moment, the drudgery of life in London. Harwell is the quintessential naif, all bright-eyed and well-scrubbed and supremely confident—a product, in other words, of the British aristocracy. He gets more than he bargained for in Montenegro, as is often the case for outsiders setting foot in the Balkans. Love, fury and violence surround him, seduce him, consume him, and there is no turning back.

The plot is simple enough. Harwell stops briefly in the town of Cetinje and falls in love (or is it lust?) with a British schoolteacher. He quickly moves on, into the mountains, where he lives with a Serb family headed by a one-legged warrior described as a “hero among heroes.” Danilo Pekocevic has a son, Toma, who is expected to follow his father’s path and fight for Montenegro’s Serbs to be free of tyranny—whether it be the tyranny of the Turks or Austrians. Danilo’s wife, Sofia, has other ideas and wants her son to emigrate to America, to escape the tragedy that surely awaits him in Montenegro, a rocky land with too many heroes and not enough happiness. Harwell becomes wrapped up in this family and its fate, falling in love with Sofia, though without a thought of violating her marriage, and as the book canters toward a conflagration caused by Toma’s forbidden love for a Muslim girl, Harwell takes center stage.

There is a classic skein to the story and to the way it is told. Think of the plot—a Briton journeys to the mysterious Balkans, falls in love, observes the manipulations of empires and the barbarism of peasants, becomes enlightened and disillusioned, finds and loses himself at one go. The formalized style of the book’s narration is a throwback, too: Some might describe the style as elegant, others might describe it as stilted, and it verges on cliche. In one scene, Harwell is soaking in a tub and thinking of the schoolteacher he has a longing for, and his thoughts, we are told, “created an urgency in his loins such as he had seldom known.” The writing is laughable or endearing, depending on one’s tastes. The risk cannot be unknown to Lawrence: He is the editor in chief of the publishing house W.W. Norton, and this is his second book, following a well-received collection of short stories, “Legacies.” But I think he succeeds. The bathtub scene ends with the wry remark that Harwell “surrendered to his pleasure.”

The real test of a historical novel is whether it evokes the period and whether it tells us about the present, too. The answer is positive. The book is incisive. The warrior mentality of Serb peasants is described well, as are the harmful manipulations of empires that can’t bear to leave a people to their own devices. The love between Toma and the Muslim girl, which of course is doomed, is a reminder of the fruitlessness of trying to wriggle free from the deadening hands of prejudice and history. It has been thus in the Balkans, as almost everywhere else on the planet, and as the conflict in Bosnia shows us now, it is still thus. The book’s ending is foretold at the beginning, so it gives nothing away to say that Toma leaves Montenegro and sails for America, opting for prosperity abroad rather than valor at home; a wise choice, though a sad one.

And what about the story’s hero, Auberon Harwell? There’s a devil’s bargain to be made in the Balkans, and it’s one that Harwell makes, perhaps unknowingly. You can learn truths that would remain hidden in restrained countries, such as the one Harwell came from; you can love a woman in a way that you would not do back home, and all of these things are life-changing gifts to Harwell. But a price must be paid. One of the provocative oddities of Lawrence’s book is that, just as it makes sense for Toma to flee Montenegro, it makes sense for Harwell to stay. There is not enough space here to explain why; one must read the book, and, even then, the answers may be as elusive and intriguing as the stranger’s cry—“Balkan! Balkan!”—that roused Rebecca West from her Paris bed so many years ago.

The reviewer is a journalist who covered the war in Bosnia. His book “Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War” won the 1996 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest.