2) White Eagles over Serbia, by Lawrence Durrell
A more serious effort by Durrell here than his collection of humorous diplomatic stories which also drew on his time in Belgrade. The cover describes it as being in the genre of John Buchan but in fact I think it’s pretty obvious that Durrell was trying to cash in on the James Bond phenomenon (Casino Royale was published two years earlier, in 1953, and Live and Let Die in 1954) by bringing his British secret agent hero to untangle murky doings in Serbia in (one assumes) early 1948.
No sex and no glamorous violence here. But there was enough vivid circumstantial description for me to pull out my map and check the topography Durrell was describing:
Most of the action takes place in the Studenica valley, near the monastery of the same name, half-way between Kraljevo and Novi Pazar (on the right hand side of the map) – not, in fact, a part of the country I’ve been to, though I’ve come close – spent a night in Kraljevo in 1998, and did the Kosovo to Bosnia route via Prijepolje and Pljevlja in 2002. The walk up the Studenica valley to rendezvous with Royalist rebels at the Jankov Kamen summit of Golija seems convincing. (This is, after all, still a hotbed of that sort of thing, with fugitive war criminals from the 1990s conflict rumoured to be hanging out in this area.) However, I felt that the trek over the mountains to the Crno Jezero on the flanks of Mount Durmitor, all the way over in Montenegro (bottom left corner of my map), should probably have taken a great deal longer than the single day Durrell allows his characters, especially since they were trying to carry vast quantities of gold with them.
It’s a very nicely observed book in terms of the scenery, the people, the fishing (especially the fishing!), the weather, the politics (though in fact Durrell arrived in Belgrade to work only in 1949 – but I suppose he may have explored there from Corfu before the war). Unfortunately Durrell didn’t quite pull it together in terms of plot. The narrative makes perfect sense, but our hero, Methuen, appears curiously unchanged by it all; he does get the girl out of danger, but it is not at all clear that he gets the girl; no huge lessons are learnt about love, loyalty or heroism (I was struck that the Royalist rebels were portrayed as being as unattractive as Tito’s Communist officials and militia). So although it’s a charming enough book, I felt a bit flat at the end of it.