Sound the trumpets. Let rip the Byzantine chorus of clattering bells and gongs, the thunder of cannons, drums and flashing Greek fire. Raid cellars and let champagne corks fly. Eighty years after Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic trudge across Europe, 20 years after the death of his long-suffering publisher Jock Murray, ten years after the passing of his wife Joan, and two years after his own death, the elusive third volume that so tormented him is published at last. The travel trilogy is complete. It is, as John Murray reminds us, the literary event of the year. But for those who admire Paddy’s densely beautiful prose, can this awkward, unformed orphan live up to its billing?
There is no need to rehearse the extraordinary genesis and gestation of its predecessors, A Time of Gifts, published in 1977, the small matter of four decades after the walk, and Between the Woods and the Water (1986), both classics of 20th-century travel writing. ‘To be concluded,’ were the final words of the second volume. Ever since, silence.
Fans of Paddy wondered what was happening in his sunlit writing-room in Kardamyli in the southern Peloponnese. ‘When might the final volume see the light of day?’, I asked him there in 2006. He was 91, and the question was unfair. It was ‘all a bit grim,’ he said. Writing was ‘rather difficult’.No wonder. He was suffering from tunnel vision, was unable to type, disliked dictation and had no assistant. Strangely, the early draft of this last leg of the walk, which he started to write in 1962 and was still editing a few months before his death, predated the first two books.
How to reconcile the parallel journeys of an 18-year-old walking from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (never Istanbul) in 1933 and the later literary travels of a much older man setting this great walk to prose? This was always the challenge — and a prodigious test of memory, for the notebooks had been lost. In the end it proved too much for him. It is odd to think that a man who reached the grand old age of 96 was outlived by the great walk of his youth.
The Broken Road finds Paddy, last seen at the Iron Gates on the Romanian Danube, tramping south east across the Bulgarian plains. Reassuringly dazzling set pieces abound. There are dreamy days exploring monasteries and forests with the frowning beauty Nadjeda, ‘a ravishing hybrid vision, half captured Circassian princess, half Byronic heroine’. And a charming cameo of the black dog that trots beside Paddy in the Great Balkan mountains, barking furiously at an enormous full moon (dog-lovers will appreciate the diminutive black quadruped adorning the handsome cover, designed by Ed Kluz in the style of John Craxton’s artwork for Paddy’s earlier books).
With Constantinople finally in reach to the south after almost a year on the road, Paddy suddenly embarks instead on a great northerly loop into Romania. After slogging up mountains and sleeping in swineherds’ huts and forest clearings, sophisticated, high-society Bucharest has him agog. He throws himself into it con brio, with ‘the zest of a barbarian padding wild-eyed with longing for luxury and corruption through the palaces and fountained courtyards of Diocletian, or of a Parthian in Antioch’. This is, after all, a man who proclaimed himself unboreable during the trans-Europe pilgrimage. ‘My mouth was as unexactingly agape as the seal’s to the flung bloater.’
This is vintage — and nascent — Paddy. Here is the fascination with foreign languages, folklore, history, genealogy, sartorial styles and, of course, pretty girls. Costumes of hook-nosed crones, dishevelled army officers, rain-soused shepherds, raki-soaked fishermen and buttoned-up diplomats are painted in technicolour splendour. Bishops and archimandrites officiate in copes ‘as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings’. The constitutional objection to almost all things Turkish is undimmed. Paddy reads his first Dostoevsky in these pages and takes his first steps into Greece, a country that would help define him in subsequent decades, not least after kidnapping a German general on Crete in 1944 and making his home in the Peloponnese in the 1960s.
The facility for procuring a bed for the night was always remarkable. ‘How often I ended up under some friendly roof scot free!’, writes the Anglo-Irish charmer, who seduced aristocrats, platonically and otherwise, the length and breadth of Europe.
Overshadowing all these pictures of pastoral happiness is the spectre of the forthcoming war and the knowledge that the Iron Curtain would separate him — and at the time of writing already had — from dear friends, many of whom were later annihilated.
Paddy was not given to much personal reflection and introspection in his books. It is an unexpected pleasure to find rather more of the man in The Broken Road. Perhaps later polishing would have culled these unusually revealing sections. There are frank passages on the black depressions that would recur during his life. The on-the-page wrestling with memory, confronting the distressing blanks that inevitably surge up from distant decades, exposes the tortured inner workings of the creative process. How is it, he wonders, that memory can obscure the most important aspects of a life-changing encounter but preserve crystalline irrelevances: ‘Daysprings veiled and epiphanies in plain clothes.’
The journey ends not in Constantinople but in mid-sentence. Hence The Broken Road. Bizarrely. Paddy never managed to write up the longed-for object of his pilgrimage. Did it not live up to expectations? The final section, altogether different in tone, is the unworked diary from 1935, rich in innocence and intellectual discovery among the monasteries of Mount Athos.
How fitting, for a man so young at heart, with such a boundless appetite for life, that his last published words should be those of a wide-eyed 20-year-old, embarking on what will be a lifelong love affair with Greece. His editors, Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, have put this book to bed with skill and sensitivity. Friends and fans, acolytes, devotees and disciples can all rest easy. It was worth the wait.