Friday, July 27, 2012

“A time of gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor

August Macke

In 1933, Patrick Leigh Fermor, eighteen years old, left home and set out for an epic walk from the “Hoek of Holland”, all the way  to Constantinople. His long journey is related in two beautiful classics: “A time of gifts” and “Between the woods and the water”.

From the first lines, one is taken aback by the beautiful writing and the maturity with which Leigh Fermor looked at the world. Surely, this could not be the work of such a young man! But we should not be surprised; Leigh Fermor wrote down his memories much later, in 1977 at a respective age of 62. By then the writer had already sharpened his pen on the translation and editing of  the “Cretan Runner” written by the Greek author Psychoundakis’ and developed his own style in “Mani” and “Roumeli”, two acclaimed and beautiful books on Greece.

Like a true Pilgrim and in tune with his young age and Byronic spirit, Leigh Fermor travelled light and on a low budget. Only equipped with a walking stick, a rucksack and two books; (an old Oxford volume of English verse and Loeb’s Horace), Leigh Fermor simply embarked on a rainy day on a steamer which brought him from the Thames to the Low Countries. From there it was on foot and an occasional ride on a hay-wagon.

The rucksack was bequeathed to him by Mark Ogilvie – Grant, Robert Byron’s travelling companion on his trip to Mount Athos, and this detail underscores the fact that Leigh Fermor does belong to this race of young, intelligent and cultural-enlightened travelers, like Pausanius and Byron before him and Herzog, Chatwin and Jacques Lacarrière after him, who all reported of their travels in brilliant books, written to our great enjoyment.

Because the young man travels like a Pilgrim, innocent and alone and thus vulnerable, he brings out the best from the many people he encounters in his wanderings through the cities and country-side. Nearly everywhere doors open, tables are dressed, friendships sealed and confidences exchanged. Free meals, free beds, help and advice are offered at each bend of the road.

But the specific year of the pilgrimage, 1933, gives Leigh Fermor’s account a strange and darker dimension. For the Germany he travels through is Nazi – Germany and the young and friendly people he meets will become his enemies in less than a decade. Some of the boys of his age already adorn their rooms with posters and newspaper clippings of the Fuhrer, but still a lot make jokes about Hitler and a handful are even convinced that the success of the Fuhrer will not outlast the next elections… Alas.

The world through which Leigh Fermor travels will soon be obliterated in a apocalyptic inferno. When reading about the many small villages and tiny hamlets he travels through in Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Roumenia and Bulgaria, the present reader knows that their inhabitants are doomed. Jewish communities, Gypsie villages, Slav settlements, all these gentle folks who help him en route will not outlive the fury of the German “Herren – Volk.

So in the end this marvelous travel account, with its funny anecdotes and many beautiful descriptions, its exposure of cultural riches and descriptions of human hospitality, is also a document on innocence about to be lost, both on the level of the young traveler and the world he travels through.

A sad aftertaste indeed…