Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Most Interesting Man In The World's Final Journey

My review of Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road from yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age.
In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor was 18 years old and washed up: he'd been expelled from school, couldn't get into university and had no idea what to do with his life. So, inspired by the likes of Peter Fleming, Robert Byron, and Alexander Kinglake, Fermor decided to walk from London to Constantinople with the vague idea of making a book out of his adventures. A Time of Gifts (1977) is the story of that trip, or at least the first third of it, being an account of his wanderings across a newly Nazified Germany and into Hungary. The forty years between the journey and the publication gave Fermor time to contemplate the meaning of all that he saw, and, rather like a fine single malt, four decades of maturation led to perfection. A Time of Gifts was hailed as a classic of travel writing: a bright, buoyant and learned book in which a young man's enthusiasm for the road was tempered by an older man's wisdom. Gifts is packed with beautiful descriptions, funny incidents and thoughtful commentary on the people and places he encounters.      
Nine years after A Time of Gifts, Fermor published Between The Woods And The Water the continuation of his travels along the Danube to the Iron Gates on the Romanian border. Fans eagerly awaited the promised conclusion to the journey but twenty six years passed after volume two and Fermor died in 2011 with, sadly, no sign of volume three.
            Paddy Fermor was born in London to a father who was both emotionally and physically distant (while the boy went to a series of boarding schools Sir Lewis Leigh Fermor continued his work with the geological survey of India) and a kind but rather stiff mother. After his epic Constantinople walk, with no career plan, Fermor moved permanently to Greece and he was there when World War 2 broke out. The British SOE recruited him as a secret agent operating behind enemy lines in Nazi occupied Crete, where, somewhat incredibly, his small band of partisans managed to capture the German general in charge of much of the island: a tale which was later told in the book and the film Ill Met by Moonlight.
            Fermor’s literary reputation was established by the books he wrote about his post-War travels in the Americas and his time spent in Greek monastic retreats. Gregarious, witty and ebullient, Fermor seems to have known everyone who was anyone – the great and the good all making the pilgrimage to his beautiful villa in Greece. He was rumoured to be one of the models for his friend Ian Fleming’s James Bond and even recently for the hilarious Dos Equis beer ads about “The Most Interesting Man In The World.”
            The Broken Road, begins with a sort of apology from the editors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, who note in their introduction that this third volume of A Time of Gifts was not only unfinished at the time of Fermor’s death but in fact barely begun.  The Broken Road was “reconstructed” from a contemporary diary and a “hasty” unpublished account Fermor had written in 1963 which he had left unrevised until he was well into his nineties. Cooper and Thubron note that Fermor’s prose is what makes his writing so unique and it’s alarming to be told that The Broken Road is “unpolished” and raw.
            This worry somewhat dissipates however when you begin reading the actual book. If The Broken Road is the stream of consciousness, unvarnished Fermor then he was even more of a genius than we all thought. Read this description of an Orthodox religious rite in Bulgaria: “They evolved and chanted in aromatic clouds of smoke diagonally pierced by sun shafts. When all was over, a compact crocodile of votaries shuffled their way around the church to kiss St Ivan’s icon and his thaumaturgic hand, black now as a briar root, inside its jewelled reliquary.”
            Every chapter of The Broken Road gleams with delicious imagery and wonderful characters and Fermor is his customary romantic self, hooking up with attractive girls left and right. There are fairs and festivals and Fermor charms his way into castles and haylofts, but there is an air of melancholy too, for this was a land that was to be put to the sword by first, the Wehrmacht, and then the Soviets; as Fermor himself explains: “Nearly all the people [in these pages] were attached to trails of powder which were already invisibly burning.”
            The book ends in northern Greece and true to its title we never do quite make it to Constantinople itself. Still, as a record of an antebellum world, in a brief Golden Age before the apocalypse of World War 2, we are lucky to have had so careful and eloquent an observer as Patrick Leigh Fermor.