Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Between the Woods and the Water

Ages ago, a friend of mine urged me to read “Between the Woods and the Water” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which is the second volume of a three part book describing the author’s journey walking to Istanbul (from the Hook of Holland) in the 1930s. I had understood that the book was written in the 30s and therefore assumed it was really difficult to get hold of. However last time I was back in the UK I noticed it in a bookshop, bought it, and discovered that it had actually been written and published in the 80s.

So, anyway, my knowledge about the back story to this book is a bit limited because I haven’t read the first one of the series, just this one, the second of three (and I think I understand that the third has still to be written). This book begins with the author crossing the Danube from Slovakia into Hungary, and finishes up with him, again on the Danube, at the “Iron Gates” in southern Romania. In the meantime he crosses Hungary and spends most of the book in Transylvania - hence the reason it had been so highly recommended to me.

As I understand, the 18 year old Fermor set out to walk as much as possible all the way (only accepting lifts in really foul weather), and (I think) to mostly camp out as he did so. However, somehow he has managed to hook into a network of mittel-European aristocrats and he in fact seems to stay far more often in opulent luxury than he does under the stars. I have to confess that my inner class warrior was greatly challenged by this, and by the idea that here we are in the 30s and Fermor is able to put off his Sandhurst/Oxford schooling and take a proto-gap year staying with counts and other landed gentry as he goes. But, pretty quickly, I found myself discarding this struggle and instead allowing myself to be carried along on the enthusiasm, incredible range of knowledge, and wonderful writing style that Fermor has. It is, I’d say, impossible to do otherwise. He’s an absolutely superb travel writer and manages to effortlessly weave into his story vast tracts of history, observations on people and fascinating conversations, as well as seemingly being able to recognise and catalogue every tree and bird that he passes as he goes. It’s an epic achievement. He does all this with such infectious enthusiasm and such conciseness, that I am left somewhat in awe (He manages, for example, to sum up the historical Hungarian/Romanian debate over the history of Transylvania in two pages. Something it has taken me 4 years of writing this blog to not even come close to managing)

Indeed it is one of those books which leaves the reader wishing he had a fraction of the skill that Fermor has in conjuring things up so effortlessly. I have, at occasions in the past, allowed myself a small passing fantasy that I could one day take some of the bits of this blog and form a narrative out of it that might make a reasonable book in the “A Year in Provence” mould, but after reading this book, I feel that I couldn’t even start to do justice to such an endeavour. Perhaps I need to re-read “A Year in Provence” which memory tells me did not quite demonstrate the same level of literary mastery, so that I could remember you don’t have to be an absolutely superb (and absolutely superbly well-informed) writer to get such a thing published.

What’s even more incredible that having walked through this world in the 30s as a late-teenager he doesn’t end up writing the books until fifty years later, based on his notes and memory. I can only observe that this is a man with a superb memory and amazing notes.

After what sounds like a spectacular summer in Transylvania, he eventually crosses the Carpathians and ends up at a place called Orşova on the Danube. To be honest this area of the country had never really crossed my consciousness before – we know someone from Drobeta Turnu Severin, but aside from that it was just that bit of Romania near Serbia that was further east than the Timisoara-Belgrade road/rail link. But he makes it sound incredibly spectacular and worth visiting – the Iron Gates (Porţile de Fier / Vaskapu) in one direction and the Kazan in the other, which are both fast moving narrows (relatively speaking) of the otherwise (by this point) incredibly wide river. Off Orşova he describes the fascinating island of Ada Kaleh, which was kind of a last remnant of the Ottoman empire, mostly Turkish in population (though politically part of Romania). As I was reading I was mentally making plans that this must be the next place in Romania on my visiting wish list. And then you reach the epilogue in which he bemoans the fact that it’s all gone now, thanks a hydroelectric dam constructed as a joint project by the Romanian and Yugoslavian governments in the communist era. Crushing. (Though Mrs H has been since then and hiked around the valleys and canyons nearby and she says it’s still incredibly spectacular)


dumneazu said...

What is amazing is that Fermor is still alive and kicking in Greece, and has finally taken the great step of buying a typewriter to finish his manuscripts instead of yellow legal pad - no PCs for Paddy. His books about Greece are just as engaging, if not more so. Fermor is a mster of erudite digression. Truly a fascinating book, and although Ada Kaleh is gone (it's residents resettled in Istanbul and Craiova.) Orsova is still worth a trip for the amazing scenery.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Indeed, Fermor is/was quite a hero in both literary and military spheres. I'm not convinced he summed up the Romanian/Hungarian situation in the "two pages" you mention - quotes, please - but the fact that he was introduced to Transylvania by Hungarian aristocracy was more accidental than anything. His account of sleeping rough with gypsies is very moving.

Andy H said...

Just to clarify, GD, I didn't claim he summed up the entirety of the Romanian/Hungarian situation - just that he manages "to sum up the historical Hungarian/Romanian debate over the history of Transylvania in two pages" (ie the whole "we were here when you came"/"no you weren't this land was to all intents and purposes unoccupied" (ad infinitum) shtick).

I'm not about to type out the entirety of two pages, at least not now, but if I have time one day I will

Dumneazu: I understand there was recently an interview with him on TV in the UK. I've looked for it on YouTube, but sadly it doesn't seem to be there.

Andy H said...

There's a great interview with him here