A road trip that is as illuminating as it is incomplete made by a traveller, warrior, and jewelled stylist.
by Boyd Tonkin.
First published in the Independent, 13 Septembet 2013.
By then almost as mythical as the heroes of his beloved Greece, Paddy Leigh Fermor – traveller, writer, warrior and scholar – died rich in years and honours in 2011. He left behind, as an unfinished manuscript, a third volume of the memoirs that recreate his youthful “Great Trudge” across Europe between late 1933 and early 1935.
As recounted in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, this idyllic journey enshrines for countless readers two lost worlds: that of picturesque, romantic Europe before the Nazi and then Communist catastrophes, and of literary travel-writing at its most sensuous, mesmeric and iridescent – a prose equivalent of those Byzantine ikons and frescoes that he would come to love.
The Broken Road – named in token of its incompleteness by editors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, PLF’s outstanding biographer – itself arrives in print after a path as rocky, faint and winding as the upland Balkan tracks across which the author strides. He had lost, forsaken or otherwise parted company with almost all his original journals. Thus every book in this (now) trilogy counts as a “jigsaw of memory”, with some pieces forever gone astray, and a “private archaeology” in which layers of pristine preservation alternate with random rubble and silt.
In fact, PLF wrote much of this final stretch of the long walk first. It covers his, as always, circuitous trek through Bulgaria and southern Romania, breaking off at Burgas on the Black Sea (not far from his final destination, Istanbul). He began it in the early 1960s; then recollection hit a wall. Other books supervened, and only after 2008, in frail old age, did he return to edit this leg. As an appendix, the editors print a diary that has survived, of his winter sojourn among the monks of a snowbound Mount Athos. Its blend of near-adolescent naivety with glimpses of a jewelled stylist in embryo confirm that the mature PLF fashioned as much as he reported.
From the “Iron Gates” on the Danube, he sweeps down through the highland “wolf and bear world” of Bulgaria to Plovdiv, where a (so we assume) chaste romance with spirited, madcap Nadejda catches the trip’s recurrent mood of sudden affection that flares for a few days and then drops into the darkness of “minor valedictions” or even “shattering deracinations”.
An autumnal tinge, historical as well as seasonal, colours the walk: many of the bewitching Balkan folk he meets were “attached to trails of powder” that would consume them during the looming totalitarian decades. The young Englishman, with his vagabond charm and bubbling curiosity, seems to enchant everyone from Bucharest toffs to Pontic shepherds in a sea-girt cave. Women and men alike fall under his sway (a later page expands on Balkan and Levantine tolerance of homoerotic friendship); but did 19-year-old Paddy, who provokes operetta-like outbursts of devotion and then sulkiness in some male companions, know how much of a flirt and a tease he might have seemed?
Along the way, the “starter’s gun” of his lifelong passions fires: for Byzantine art and culture, and the Greek world in general; for ruggedly sublime scenery and (in contrast) the aristocratic suavity that he laps up, a pampered stray, in Bucharest. Above all, the book lopes from one hallucinatory set-piece to another: the look and feel of a hillside Bulgarian town, its lanes “crisscrossed by buckled and twisted tiger-stripes of sunlight”; the thick airborne carpet of storks on their autumn migration, “a sliding pavilion of feathers overhead”; the “holy and enchanted” ruined mosque where (overcoming his usual anti-Ottoman tilt) he lingers by moonlight accompanied by an equally fabulous black dog.
If his name-dropping immersion in Romanian high society begins to grate, then even the ball-and-salon scenes will be lit by some Proustian lightning-bolt, as when he recalls the “faint and scarcely discernible warp” of the parquet floor at the Palais Stirbey in Bucharest. That shimmering warp of memory and artfully distorting hindsight – “balloons” of afterthought” – reaches a culmination in that coastal cave, after a solitary swing down the deserted combes, slopes and crests of the Black Sea coast.
In a lamplit frenzy of mystic dance and song, among Homeric fisherfolk and swains, young Paddy discovers the underground ecstasies of rebetika in all its “quintessence of fatalism”. Glimpsed from the future, he sets a course for the Greece that would keep his prose dancing ever after.