The last master­piece from a great trav­eller

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - JAMES JEF­FREY

AND so it ends. Sort of. Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s cel­e­brated tramp across 1930s Europe first burst into print in The Time of Gifts (1977), which took us from the Hook of Hol­land, through the beauty and men­ace of a Ger­many in the thrall of the still young Nazi regime, and left us stand­ing in the mid­dle of a bridge over the Danube, Cze­choslo­vakia be­hind us and Hun­gary ahead.

Nearly a decade passed be­fore the j our­ney con­tin­ued in Be­tween the Woods and the Wa­ter. By then, Fer­mor’s orig­i­nal plan to sleep in barns, hayricks and monas­ter­ies had been largely sub­merged as kindly aris­to­crats passed him from one to the other. Cue im­ages of semi-re­mem­bered bac­cha­na­lias in Bu­dapest, frolics with peas­ant girls in Ro­ma­nia, and a fam­ily of Tran- syl­va­nia’s doomed Hun­gar­ian no­bil­ity paus­ing from a game of bi­cy­cle polo while a rel­a­tive landed their bi­plane on the lawn.

Through­out it all was a won­der of schol­arly and lin­guis­tic riches, con­veyed with an in­fec­tious, in­sa­tiable sense of cu­rios­ity, af­fec­tion and, above all, hu­man­ity. It was also a tale of youth — he was 18 when he set off — seen through the prism of a few ex­tra decades of ac­cu­mu­lated wis­dom.

Then there was the writ­ing it­self. The books are a love af­fair with lan­guage in gen­eral, but English above all. Fer­mor’s lines burst with metaphor and im­agery, and such an easy sense of his­tory and all its ghosts and echoes, it surely counts as four-di­men­sional.

It was the odyssey that cre­ated Fer­mor, who as well as grow­ing into one of the English lan­guage’s great­est crafts­men be­came a war hero the decade af­ter his walk. His role in the kid­nap­ping of a Ger­man gen­eral dur­ing the height of the war in Crete would go on to be im­mor­talised in Ill Met By Moon­light.

So when Fer­mor — or Paddy, as he was gen­er­ally known — brought Be­tween the Woods and the Wa­ter to a close at the Danube’s Iron Gates, it left a de­sire to see that odyssey fin­ished. He al­ways promised he would get us to the road’s end in Con­stantino­ple (a name from which he never de­vi­ated).

But, in the poignant words of his publisher, a ‘‘glacial writer’s block de­scended’’ and the prom­ise of the full tril­ogy was left hang­ing. Most of a life­time now stood be­tween him and that epic jour­ney. There were oc­ca­sional flick­ers of hope, not least when Fer­mor took the rad­i­cal step late in life of up­grad­ing to an elec­tric type­writer.

But while the words came, they were never to his com­plete sat­is­fac­tion; he was still work­ing on the manuscript a few weeks be­fore his death in 2011. The task of pulling it to­gether was left in the ad­mirable hands of Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper. As they write in the in­tro­duc­tion, ‘ ‘ There is some­thing poignant and mys­te­ri­ous about in­com­plete master­pieces.’’

And so we have The Bro­ken Road, a ti­tle that ac­knowl­edges the in­ter­rupted na­ture of the tale. As with the first two books, it is bathed in an ele­giac glow, a ten­der glimpse of a Europe about to van­ish in the char­nel house of World War II and the calamity of com­mu­nism that soon fol­lowed.

But as Fer­mor keeps re­mind­ing us, Europe is a long string of van­ish­ings and up­heavals.

It may not have the same pol­ished pre­ci­sion as its pre­de­ces­sors, but as we leave be­hind the ghost of the Haps­burg em­pire and march into the ghost of the Ot­toman, the voice is un­mis­tak­ably Fer­mor’s: elo­quent, po­etic, some­times hi­lar­i­ous. Per­haps, in a way, it’s fit­ting it was never re­ally fin­ished, and in our minds the young Paddy can still be tramp­ing ever on­wards to­wards the Bospho­rus. The Bro­ken Road by Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor (John Mur­ray, $49.99).

Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor

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