Highway maintenance – review of The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor


The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mouth Athos

Patrick Leigh Fermor, London: John Murray, 162pp, hb

In 2011, Patrick Leigh Fermor became Patrick Leigh Former, and hundreds of thousands of devotees became doubly bereft. The first loss was the man himself, at 96 an antique in his own right, one of the last links to what feels increasingly like an antediluvian Europe, in which advanced civilization could coexist with medieval colour and high adventure. But perhaps even more than the man himself, who after all had led a long and charmed life, we rued the absence of The Book – the anciently promised concluding volume of what he had always envisaged as a trilogy telling of his traipse from Holland to Constantinople just before the Second World War.

We had more or less given up hope that there would ever be a companion-piece to A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986). We knew that PLF’s powers were waning, even though it had been bruited breathlessly that he was teaching himself to type. As the years peregrinated past, it seemed increasingly unlikely that the notoriously painstaking stylist would ever be energetic or satisfied enough to release a definitive text. Yet there was always the faintest of faint hopes that just possibly, despite all odds, he might manage to muster one more flash of genius and transport his youthful self finally to his fabled destination, so allowing us to close his chapter with a sad but satisfied sigh. With the news of his death, it seemed we would always be stuck at the Iron Gates on the Danube, locked out of a private preserve.

Luckily, two literary executors-errant have galloped into the breach, in a gallant attempt to supply something of what they rue as much as we do. They are the noted travel writer Colin Thubron, and Artemis Cooper, PLF’s biographer and editrix of Words of Mercury, a collection of his shorter prose pieces, who had known Paddy since her childhood. They have taken as their raw material a 1960s draft by Leigh Fermor, fortuitously found in 2008 in the John Murray offices in London – plus a diary about his first sojourn in Mount Athos, whence he repaired just after Constantinople.

Howsoever respectfully and intelligently executed, all attempts to finish another’s unfinished masterpiece, whether a book, a painting or a symphony, are bound to feel slightly anticlimactic to some. Yet Thubron and Cooper have carried out their duty admirably, and with great modesty. ‟The Broken Road”, they say with a soupçon of uncertainty, ‟may not be precisely the ‘third volume’ that so tormented him, but it contains, at least, the shape and scent of the promised book.” Quite so; it also adds depth to Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, because we can see from what yarn those even more richly-detailed tapestries were woven. The voice of The Broken Road is unmistakably that of its author, but when he was slightly less baroque. The editors have been careful to retain even the occasional ingenuous remark or cliché that the older PLF would doubtless have purged. These things having been noted, there is still plenty of the intellectual fire, descriptive brilliance, and fantastical profusion Fermorians relish.

The Broken Road does not actually carry Leigh Fermor all the way to Constantinople, but stops fifty miles short of the Turkish frontier. He left that fabled metropolis rather precipitately, leaving only a few diaristic scraps, none of which (rather astoundingly) describe the city’s embarrassment of antiquities. Yet the author was after all concerned with Europe rather than Asia. He might not have been a very sympathetic recorder of the Istanbul ambience anyway, and once said that he never left that city “without a lightening of the heart”. Leigh Fermor saw the Turks as “Oriental barbarians” who had “brought nothing but calamity” to Europe. These are not his only excursions into what is now often called ‘Islamophobia’, yet he is essentially fair-minded –

If one blesses the names of Charles Martel and Sobieksy for rescuing Western civilization from Islam, one must execrate the memory of the Fourth Crusade, and the greed and Christian sectarianism that sacked Constantinople, destroyed the Byzantine Empire and called down the doom of Christendom’s eastern half. It is as vain to blame the Turks for spreading westwards over the wreckage as it would be to arraign the laws of hydrostatics for flood damage.

He was also always sympathetically interested in the Ottoman outposts left when the Turkish tide last flowed out, admiring their architecture, and the kindness and ineffable dignity of the slightly shabby relicts. A generic fair-mindedness is in fact one of the author’s most attractive characteristics. The Bulgarian part of The Broken Road finishes in mid-sentence, in a six-word flourish of careful qualifications – “…and yet, in another sense, although…”.

Through the opened Iron Gates, then, with our revivified conductor – on a siren-booming steamer through what was then a seething gorge girt by cliffs (since drowned by dull dams), to make landfall for the first time in Bulgaria, to encounter a “rough-hewn and tough” people who “padded the dusty cobbles like bears”. We are once more launched on a footloose and flexible itinerary, which will carry us across that long-Turkicised territory (with detours into Romania) in quest of culture and colour, accepting of the incidents of the road even when unenjoyable – cold, hunger, weariness, homesickness, getting lost, having a rucksack stolen, rude locals, mysterious and slightly terrifying misunderstandings, and nearly dying of exposure during a freezing Black Sea night. Such hazards were amply compensated for by opposite experiences, such as the superb setpiece that ensues when he is rescued by troglodytic Euxine shepherds and fishermen, who belie their rusticity with dazzling displays of musicianship and Terpsichorean virtuosity.

It is rather remarkable how much warmth the young traveller generated from strangers along his odyssey, whether peasants or polymaths, gypsies or diplomats – but then the English traveller had a better reputation then than now. Moreover, the English were not embroiled in the contested histories of the regions he traversed, and in any case the author had a naturally ingenuous and generous nature which sparked counterpart qualities in others. Leigh Fermor brought abounding enthusiasm as part of his luggage – perhaps his single most important piece of kit.

It would be impossible to exaggerate the passionate excitement and delight that infected every second

he recalls wistfully of his thirty years ago-self.

There are unforgettable people to be encountered along The Broken Road, happily resuscitated after their overlong interment – and memorable events, ranging from Rabelaisian drinking bouts and rowdy nationalist demonstrations to solemn masses in eagle-height Orthodox ashrams. Two people from the preceding volumes we get to know slightly better – the author’s parents, with whom he exchanges letters as he travels. The author always felt more akin to his mother, feeling his geologist father’s “scientific passion for classification” to be utterly unlike his; yet was it that very different from his son’s romantic but well-ordered obsession with philology? (This supposedly distant father also had a gift for story-telling, presumably rather like that of Leigh Fermor fils.) The author can invest even the most cliched subjects with interest, such as sunset –

…leagues of gold wire, shoals and lagoons, berserk flights of cherubim, burning fleets and the slow-motion destruction of Sodom.

How we would like to have seen Bucharest as he saw it, a city on the modern make, where fur-capped shepherds bivouacked within sight of skyscrapers, and

A smart street of shops would shoot a brightly-lit ruler of radiance through the dark, and die away in a faintly discernible cemetery, a midden or a wood

The evolution of Bucharest could be said to typify the central tension of the journey – the tipping balance between old and coming, the author a product of liberal enlightenment, friend to cosmopolitan sophisticates, yet in urgent search of the fruits of ancientness and isolation before they shrivelled entirely. His retreats to Mount Athos were similarly counter-temporal – these visits would be described memorably in his 1957 book A Time to Keep Silence, a pæan to the monastic ideal published just as Europe was commencing its present orgy of self-preening. He belonged to a fine tradition of indefatigable folklorists who selflessly transmitted some savour of the past to a more homogenized posterity, and whose work will become more rather than less redolent as we continue on our own one-way journey away from the confident continent he knew. He – and now his faithful editor-engineers – deserve the gratitude not just of nostalgists, but all who are interested in the highways and byways of human experience.

This review first appeared in Chronicles in September 2014, and is reproduced with permission

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