The Broken Road: A Modern Xenophon

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The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos. Patrick Leigh Fermor. London, Murray, 2013.


On reading the new biography of Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) by Artemis Cooper (no relation) I was surprised to be reminded of Voegelin. They shared at least three obvious external characteristics: both were polymaths; both had amazing linguistic abilities; both had distinctive writing styles. If Voegelin can be compared to Plato, then Paddy – as he was known to all who met him (except in Greece, where he was called Mihali) – was a modern Xenophon, a soldier and adventurer as well as a philosopher. He was to the vita activa what Voegelin was to the vita contemplativa. More precisely, Paddy’s travel trilogy, of which the volume under review is the last, is an anamnesis of his youth and a description of his formation, much as were the “anamnetic experiments” that Voegelin composed in 1943.

Paddy had been accepted at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, the British equivalent to West Point, but had to wait six months until his eighteenth birthday before entering. He spent the time reading French poetry and English travel writers and wandering through the National Gallery. He took part in a London version of Voegelin’s Viennese Geistkreis, enjoyed the Bohemian culture so wonderfully evoked in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, and realized he could not live happily on what would be the army pay of a junior officer. Sandhurst was out.

He decided to write, but about what? On an allowance of five pounds a month he would walk to Istanbul, which he always referred to as Constantinople, and write about that. On Saturday, December 9th, 1933 he left in the rain aboard the Stadtholder Willem, outbound from the Tower Bridge in London to the Hook of Holland, and the “great tramp” began.

He was barely eighteen. Decades later, he wrote a parallel journey looking back from maturity but, lacking a great number of corroborating records, notes, and notebooks, he had to rely on memory and its recreations. The travel trilogy was a genuine anamnetic voyage of discovery and self-discovery. He was hardly the first to employ travel as a metaphor for reflection on one’s life, but he was one of the best.

In the fall and early winter of 1933 Paddy was filled with contempt and self-contempt. The journey, he thought, would resolve and transfigure that restless triviality. He slept in bars and hovels, in sheepfolds, monasteries, barns, and under the stars. Sometimes he slept in the castles and grand homes of European aristocrats to whom he held introductions from friends in Britain.

The first volume, A Time of Gifts (1977) took him as far as Czechoslovakia by way of Germany and Austria. The title referred to the gifts of new horizons. He entered Germany nine months after Hitler, who, with the blessings of the Germans, had given himself supreme power. Paddy entered the country filled with joy, medieval romanticism and political myopia. He was puzzled by Nazi logic, ideology, and slogans. “Der Führer sagt . . . ” would often end a conversation, which Paddy found perplexing rather than sinister or alarming. In Munich the main quality he discovered in the Hofbräuhaus, for example, was that it was a temple to gluttony. It still is, but in 1934 it was far more than that. The countryside remained less politicized and he found it easier there to surround himself with the illusion of beauty and historical continuity than in German cities. In contrast, his observation of Vienna was astute: it had been “robbed of its historical context” by the Great War. One recalls an observation by Voegelin in The Authoritarian State, that the Germans of the Hapsburg Empire were its rulers, but after the war they had nothing left to rule.

While walking, Paddy diverted himself by memorizing poetry in English, French, Latin, and classical Greek, and then later in German, Czech, Hungarian, Bulgarian, Rumanian and the many dialects of modern Greek. He registered delight in the discovery of new cultures by noticing the molding around a window or the cut of a beard, an uncommon syllable or the taste of an unfamiliar drink, much as Voegelin, in his book on America, noticed revealing details: the color of boats on the Hudson and cardboard theater tickets that included the tax in the price (unlike the custom of Paris). As did The Form of the American Mind, Paddy’s A Time of Gifts combined extensive reading with the ebullient clumsiness of a young man. In Voegelin’s case the clumsiness was most obvious in the labored, complex mandarin German with which he expressed himself.

Readers of A Time of Gifts noted the last words: To Be Continued. Just as his correspondence revealed that Voegelin found it on occasion irritating to cope with requests to account for the hiatus between the third and fourth volumes of Order and History, Paddy faced a similar difficulty. Nine years after A Time of Gifts appeared he published Between the Woods and the Water, the title taken from an observation of Saki (the short-story writer, H.H. Munro, 1870-1916) about “those mysterious regions between the Vienna Woods and the Black Sea.” As with A Time of Gifts, the middle phase of his journey was one of wondrous adventure and self-discovery.

Between the Woods and the Water (1986) told of his travel across Hungary to the Bulgarian-Rumanian frontier at the Iron Gates of the Danube. By now Paddy knew he would have to bring this life as the embodiment of Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy to an end, but he found it difficult to do. He reached Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935 and spent his twentieth birthday on Mount Athos – an account of this part of the trip is found in the present volume. In March he took part, on a borrowed horse, in a cavalry charge. He attached himself to the royalist forces and mowed down the republican Vinizelist rebels by galloping through the River Struma in northern Greece and carrying the fight to them.

Armed with more introductions, he then traveled to Athens where he met a Rumanian princess, Balasha Cantacuzène. He moved with her to her family estates in Moldavia and made the first and unsuccessful attempt at writing up his notes. When Britain declared war on Germany he was still in Rumania but left his Circe and made his way home. Thus began the second major chapter in Paddy’s Xenophontic life, his time in the army. The highlight of his military career was the part he played, with Billy Moss, in the abduction of General Heinrich Kreipe, commander of Fortress Crete, and the anabasis with the general across the island. They eventually debarked to Cairo where General Kreipe was debriefed. Kreipe ended his war interred in a POW camp west of Calgary.

One morning, as dawn was breaking on snow-capped Mount Ida, Kreipe recited the opening words, in Latin, of Horace’s Ode 1:9:

“See the mighty peak of Soracte standing deep in virgin snow.”

Paddy continued the poem to the end, almost twenty lines later. “When I’d finished,” he wrote in A Time of Gifts, “after a long silence he said: ‘Ach so, Herr Major!’ It was very strange. ‘Ja, Herr General.’ As though for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountain long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.” After the war, this “Hussar’s stunt,” as the general had called it at the time, was the subject of a book by Billy Moss and then a movie, both called Ill Met by Moonlight; the latter starred Dirk Bogarde as Paddy.

In 1946 Paddy was attached to the British Institute in Athens, which he found uncongenial in the extreme, and left early in 1947. When the possibility of touring the Caribbean arose, and of writing about it, he jumped at the chance. The result was not a major travel book but his only novel, The Violins of St-Jacques. This was followed by a short travel book, The Traveler’s Tree, and plenty of journalism and high-end magazine writing. For the rest of his life he could support himself and his travel-habit at least in part by writing. The fiscal balance was made up by his long-time companion, Joan Rayner. They married in January 1968.

The last of the trilogy, The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, was published in 2013. It partly completes the story of his walk and sheds light on the soul of an otherwise reticent and private individual. As noted, he reached Constantinople, but his written journey ended at Burgas in Bulgaria, fifty miles from the Turkish border. Hence the title.

The same youthful delight is present in this volume as in the previous ones. He remained enchanted with language and folklore, strange tastes, tattoos, and warts, with tall stories and ancient hatreds. We learn how deeply Rumanians abominate Greeks and Bulgars, who return the favor with relish. Paddy speculated that it may have all begun with Basil the Bulgar-slayer who blinded an entire army of defeated Bulgarians, leaving one in a hundred with a single eye, enough to lead the rest stumbling home.

He left many beautiful descriptions. Of a Bucharest church, for instance, he described its walls thick as dungeons, a high window admitting pale light, narthex, transepts, apses, a huge iconostasis sporting a parade of angels and etiolated saints, kings and queens with overlapping halos and endless columns of martyrs. He meditated on many sad goodbyes. Indeed, his entire journey seemed to be a series of minor valedictions that were not so much relief at getting away as a reminder of the fleetingness of life itself. This same sense of transitoriness, he said, allowed for the almost instant intimacy and friendship. He experienced a great deal of both.

What may be his most important discovery was of a large and complex mosaic of social and religious outposts. He found, for example, Uniat Christians who were (sort of) Catholic, with Zoroastrian and Gnostic elements woven into their liturgies, tiny communities of isolated Turks or of Sephardic Jews speaking Andalusian Spanish, Islamicized Bogomils, Gypsies, and many, many more. All these peculiar communities were smashed and simplified into secular oblivion by the coming war and its aftermath.

The three volumes constitute an astonishing literary portrait of a part of Europe that is still largely ignored in the West. He later wrote of remote valleys and isolated villages of modern Greece with an equal wonder at encountering cultures that still existed in continuity with Byzantine times, as if the Ottoman occupation never happened. His writings both on the inter-war Balkans and on Greece of the 1950s and 1960s are elegiac since those worlds are gone forever. But Paddy left a way back, a recollection of the imagination and the sympathies of a young man who became the best travel writer of his day.

If that is not reason enough to read his work, the sheer beauty of his prose is sufficient recommendation for any who love the English language.

Barry Cooper

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Barry Cooper is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. He is the author, editor, or translator of more than thirty books and has published over one hundred and fifty papers and book chapters. He writes a regular column in the Calgary Herald.