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20 September 2013

The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor: No more a-roving

I set off along The Broken Road laden with expectations that I would have to make allowances. Yet almost from the off, I realised that I would have no use for these.

By Jeremy Seal

Patrick Leigh Fermor. Image: Getty
In December 1933, aged 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set out to walk to Constantinople – as this lifelong Hellenophile would always know Istanbul – taking a little over a year to reach his destination; an altogether greater challenge, it turned out, would be getting his many admiring readers there. Only with the posthumous publication fully 80 years later of The Broken Road has Leigh Fermor’s account of his pre-war wanderings, luminously evoked in A Time of Gifts (1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), reached its end – even if it’s not quite the one its author imagined.
Leigh Fermor combined personal charm and social ease with a transcendent literary style, topping the package off with the military distinction he earned by leading the legendary wartime abduction of a German general in occupied Crete. The only notable failure in his long life – he died in 2011 at the age of 96 – was not to deliver on the pledge “To be concluded”, with which he had signed off Between the Woods and the Water. That second volume left him at Ada Kaleh – an island populated by Turkish ancients in battered fezzes near the Iron Gates gorge on the River Danube – a footloose teenager awaiting a boat by the quayside.
It also left rapt readers wondering when their own journey in Leigh Fermor’s exhilarating, erudite and irresistibly bohemian company might continue; even, given the torment that the third volume was widely rumoured to be causing its ageing author, if they might ever do so. With the passing years, many devotees, this one included, began consoling themselves instead that the uniquely prodigious feat of imaginative recall Leigh Fermor had attempted – evoking so captivatingly the defining journey of his life, several decades after the event and often without diaries or notebooks by way of support – had ever got as far as it did.
Now comes news that the journey is back on, thanks to the editorial efforts that Leigh Fermor’s biographer, Artemis Cooper, and the travel writer Colin Thubron have expended on the writer’s unfinished manuscript. Their introduction addresses the trilogy’s stop-start progress and readily concedes this volume’s particular shortcomings, not least that the author, by then into his seventies, found himself no longer capable of the intense and exhausting rewrites that had distinguished the previous books. Nor does Leigh Fermor ever quite make it to Constantinople in the manuscript but, as their choice of title suggests, the journey stops short, mid-sentence, at the Bulgarian town of Burgas. According to the introduction, the book is no more than a “partial resolution” of the author’s original intention, even if it contains “the shape and scent of the promised book”.
So, it was no surprise that I set off along The Broken Road laden with expectations that I would have to make allowances. Yet almost from the off, I realised that I would have no use for these. Here was a wealth of descriptions that only Leigh Fermor could have conjured up: the exposed stairs of a derelict minaret likened to “the volutes of a smashed ammonite’s fossil”; the windowpanes of the Bulgarian town of Tarnovo, throwing back the evening sun “in tiers of square flaming sequins, as though fires were raging within”; or the dust devils on the Wallachian Plain in Romania, “dark with plucked-up rubbish and twirling in ever-varying girths like irregular barley sugar”.
The Broken Road resembles its predecessors in many respects, not least in the trademark forays into the cultural, linguistic and theological arcana of exotic sects such as the Uniate Catholics of Plovdiv, as well as a typically lyrical speculation on the far-flung migrations of the region’s storks. There are also the familiar affecting friendships: with a hotel maid called Rosa in Rustchuk, with the working girls at a brothel in Bucharest that he mistakes for conventional lodgings and, true to character, with a cultured German diplomat who bears the “pale diagonal of a fencing-scar”.
Although it is true that the text sometimes lacks the perfectionist gleam found in Leigh Fermor’s earlier work – tobacco leaves hung to dry from houses in the Rila Mountains of Bulgaria are likened to kippers, a conspicuous repeat from the final pages of the second volume – these occasional slips barely show through the dazzle.
If there is a substantial difference here, it is perhaps because of this account of the walk’s latter stages having originally been written, for complex reasons explained in the introduction, well before Leigh Fermor set about the first two volumes of the trilogy. I detected welcome glimpses of a younger writer who is less guarded on the subject of himself than he can appear in the other volumes. A charmingly candid paragraph explores the guilt the author feels about the hospitality that he enjoys in the nightclubs and restaurants of Bucharest, the impoverished traveller waving “thousand-lei notes”, which happily remain, thanks to his generous hosts, nothing more than “stage currency”. He also quotes from letters he receives along the walk from his Anglo-Indian parents, which trigger a moving childhood memoir.
With the abrupt ending of the manuscript at Burgas, his editors have elected to continue his journey to Constantinople courtesy of a few entries from the author’s journal, though these excerpts are so cursory as to confirm the suspicion that the fabled city on the Bosphorus left him dispirited. Leigh Fermor, who writes in The Broken Road of “the all-destroying catalepsy of Turkish occupation”, never lost his heart to Istanbul.
This was surely why there could be no conclusion here. In a stroke of brilliance, Thubron and Cooper have included the separate diary that Leigh Fermor kept of the month he spent exploring Mount Athos in Greece immediately after leaving Istanbul. So, the Athos diary, aglow with rich experience, finally brings the journey to its rightful end in the spiritual heart of the country that was to prove, though the young author did not yet know it, Leigh Fermor’s “real love and destination”.
Jeremy Seal is the author of “Meander: East to West Along a Turkish River” (Vintage, £9.99) 
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