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BOOK REVIEW

Passion and Brutality at the Century's Dawn

MONTENEGRO by Starling Lawrence. Farrar, Straus & Giroux $23, 310 pages

September 14, 1997|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With this novel, Starling Lawrence, editor in chief of the W.W. Norton & Co. publishing house, has brought to life a vanished age. Only it hasn't vanished entirely, as today's headlines always remind us; for his scene is the war-torn Balkan Peninsula.

The time is 1908; the place, the Montenegro of the title. Auberon Harwell, a well-to-do young Englishman, is sent by a highly placed English lord to collect intelligence in that corner of Europe where Serbs, Austrians and Ottoman Turks all have interests.

Harwell's cover is that he is engaged in the most English of occupations, botanical exploration. He is investigating the alpine flora of the karst--"an area of limestone terrain characterized by sinks, ravines and underground streams" typical of Montenegro.

His real mission is to find out what is happening in the famous Sandzak, or district, of Novi Pazar, a fertile valley in the mountains ruled by the Turks.

To get there, Harwell proceeds down the Dalmatian coast by decrepit Ungaro-Croatian steamer to Cattaro, a city in the kingdom of Montenegro. From there he ascends a mountain to the capital, Cetinje.

In Cetinje, Harwell meets Miss Lydia Wadham, who is teaching at the Girls' Institute, a gift from the empress of Russia to her fellow Serbs. Although Lydia's accent is less than top-drawer, she is very good to look at. So is the tall Harwell, elegantly shod in costly boots. She asks him to take her along into the country's interior but he says no, although the letters he later writes to her are ardent and yearning. The interplay between them is a main theme of the novel.

Another is the passion--political, religious and ethnic--of the Balkans, where the conflicts of 600 years ago were alive in 1908, and still are today. Harwell meets Danilo Pekocevic and his family, who burn to restore Serbia's greatness that vanished in the battle of Kosovo in 1389. By means of the Pekocevics and their world, Lawrence presents a slice of the rural Balkans of 90 years ago.

"Montenegro" is a piece of imaginative reconstruction based on painstaking research and some personal experience. Lawrence went to Montenegro once, in 1985, on his honeymoon. For the rest he relied on books, notably Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (1941), which Lawrence calls "one of the great books of the century," and Muir Mackenzie's "Travels in the Slavonic Provinces of Turkey in Europe" (1867), which West called "indispensable to the student of the Balkans."

Lawrence's descriptions of the terrain are inviting, and accounts of its inhabitants' passion and brutality are plausible. "Montenegro" is an elegantly written old-fashioned adventure story.

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