The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates To Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
This book is a very strange one, although it must be admitted that there are a great many books that I have read about the attempts of people to travel in Eastern Europe. It is unclear why it is that Eastern Europe exerts such a pull on travelers who want to write about their experiences–I have never visited Eastern Europe outside of Estonia and Greece myself–but the author does a great job at conveying his own impressions of a society that, unknown to itself, was at a period of immense change and destruction. The book itself is fragmentary, made up both of the incomplete manuscript that was to be the third volume of the author’s series about his travels in Central and Eastern Europe and the diary that he took at the time. This fragmentary nature, though, far from hurting the book, gives it a sense of melancholy about the rather fragmentary state of the region that the author explores, and his own sense of the impending doom of some of its peoples, whose existence became problematic in an age of Nazis and Communists in a part of the world where everyone seems to hate their neighbor with a fierce passion.
This book is broadly divided into two parts. The first is an incomplete manuscript of the author’s journey from the Iron gates of the Danube to the Black Sea coast not far from Istanbul, and the second part of the book is a diary the author kept about his experiences and meditations in Mount Athos. The first part of the book explores the author meeting English expatriates, having discussions with Bulgarians, Romanians, and various minority peoples whose historical doom was already present–Romanian landowning elites, German royal families, the Jews of the region, and smaller peoples the author meets along the way in isolated villages. The author himself finds the time to explore about the relationship of geography to history and the question of whether the Phanariot Greek rulers of Romania were all that bad, as well as the question as to why the Bulgarians hate everyone around them and always lose at war (the two are probably closely related). The second part of the book, skipping over the author’s trip to Istanbul, which did not provide much writing on his part, apparently, consists of his reflections while on Mount Athos, which are of likely interest to those who like accounts of contemporary monasticism.
Overall, this book is certainly an interesting travelogue to a bygone era. The author managed to travel in Eastern Europe before the horrors of World War II and Communist domination, and there is a richness and a diversity to the author’s encounters that one likely would not find today given the destruction that fascist and Communist regimes did to the region and its people. This book has a melancholy edge like it was written by a traveler who was aware that he was at the end of the age and sought to convey as much as possible of a time that he knew to be important even if he was not aware of exactly what would happen. That sense of foreboding and doom, which the author was unable to finish in the course of his life, makes for some compelling reading, and the author has a quick eye and a ready understanding of the people around him, even finding himself involved in various delicate relationships with some of the people that he meets along the way. Rarely has a gap year been used more productively by someone who is both observant and sensitive to what is going on around him, and put to such good use in terms of conveying insight through one’s travel writing.