Montenegroby Starling Lawrence
In 1908, with world war a dark prophecy on the horizon, an English traveler, Auberon Harwell, enters a far valley in Montenegro -- a spy sent to assess the political situation while posing as a botanist. Drawn into the drama of a young Serb in love with an unattainable woman, Harwell's sense of duty and honor will be severely compromised by his own dangerous… See more details below
In 1908, with world war a dark prophecy on the horizon, an English traveler, Auberon Harwell, enters a far valley in Montenegro -- a spy sent to assess the political situation while posing as a botanist. Drawn into the drama of a young Serb in love with an unattainable woman, Harwell's sense of duty and honor will be severely compromised by his own dangerous desires -- leading him toward a shattering confrontation that will forever change the world he thought he knew.
Foreshadowing present-day conflicts in the region, Lawrence incorporates lots of information into his narrative about the various groups with a stake in the area. Lawrence, though, wears his research lightly and uses a protagonistAuberon Harwell, an Englishmanwho, like the reader, learns as he goes along. A spy for powerful British interests, Auberon poses as a botanist interested in the unique flora of Montenegro, the one region of Serbia not controlled by the Turks. Traveling inland from the Adriatic, he stops first in the mountain village of Cetinje, where the British ambassador reveals his contempt for the natives and where Auberon romances a young missionary, Lydia Wadham, who teaches in the local girls' academy. Lydia also provides Auberon with an introduction to a powerful local clan that lives on the furthest border of Montenegro, near a strategic valley controlled by Moslems. There, Auberon befriends Danilo Pekoevi, a hero in the local resistance movement opposing the Turks, whose wife, Sofia, hopes to see Toma, her only remaining son, escape to America. Mostly out of love for the beautiful Sofia, Auberon helps Toma escape his violent patrimony, but not before the young man makes the local situation worse by impregnating a local Moslem girl, whose clan insists on a wedding. When she commits suicide, the fragile peace is breached, and Auberon's escape with Toma assumes heroic dimensions. In fact, the novel itself thrives on this very conflict between heroism and the demands of realpolitik.
Lawrence's simple notionthat the heart can't always have what it wantsis enriched by the exotic textures of his setting. A lush, middlebrow drama that's perfect for the big screenand could easily become the next English Patient, given the right director.
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By Starling Lawrence
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Starling Lawrence
All right reserved.
Cattaro, February 1908
Harwell had always prided himself on being a good sailor and a perfectly rational man, but he had been so miserably and unaccountably seasick since the steamer left Trieste two days earlier that it was difficult to accept this affliction as anything other than an omen. Much of his boyhood was spent racing small boats on the Norfolk Broads, and the Channel crossing, with its chops and cross seas, was familiar, even welcome to him. He once read three chapters of a Russian novel in the course of a Channel storm so violent that even the steward in the first-class lounge had to excuse himself.
For these two wretched days, however, he had scarcely left the deck, hoping that the vicious wind, the bora, howling the length of the Adriatic, might clear his head and settle his stomach. The wind set the old Ungaro-Croatian steamer into a continuous shuddering roll as soon as she cast off it drove the smoke straight over the bows like a pennant pointing south, covering the deck and his clothes with a fine grit; and when he was sick, which had happened more times than he could remember, eddies of this same wind flung his vomit back on him, spattering his trousers and shoes. He remembered withdisgust a plate of macaroni he had eaten just before boarding the ship. He had no notion of what the sauce had been, and he had never liked that sort of food anyway. He determined never to eat it again.
It was dawn now, or nearly so, for the light was trapped behind that great mountain, which he could see only in outline. He had spent the night in a deck chair, muffled in two blankets. The steward had been alarmed at the idea of providing either the chair or the blankets at such a late hour, and had demanded security of two sovereigns and all the Italian coins in his pocket. Harwell, already in low spirits, was first annoyed, then offended, for the steward clearly doubted his sanity. Why would a man about to jump overboard need a deck chair? And would he conceivably take it with him over the side? Well, he had been warm enough, or nearly so, and he had even managed to sleep for a while. He had woken once and glimpsed, across the broken sea, the lights of Ragusa, that ancient city which he had hoped to see in the daylight, her ramparts set against the unforgiving mountains of Illyria.
He leaned now on the rail, for he was exhausted still, and felt the vibrations of the steamer altering as she steered a majestic curve out of the violent waters of the Adriatic, through the narrows, and into that vast, sheltered bay, the Bocche di Cattaro. The dark mountain, his destination, now limned with light, lay dead ahead, and ghostly white villages defined the shoreline. The wind had dropped, and he was surrounded by clouds of clamoring gulls. He breathed deeply and contemplated the possibility of breakfast.
The steward seemed surprised to see Harwell still alive, but made a swift recovery, hoping to preserve last night's deposit as this morning's gratuity. At last the man surrendered the two gold coins, holding back the Italian ones, which Harwell let him keep.
The cabin stank so that the sickness nearly came back over him, but he managed to change out of those filthy trousers and scrape the worst off his shoes. He packed quickly, cursing himself for having too much luggage, and found a place for his shoes in the side of one valise where they would not do too much damage. The trousers were impossible. He thrust them under the pillow, muttering that the steward could jolly well earn his tip.
Dressed in breeches and the beautifully burnished Maxwell boots his mother had given him as a going-away present, assured by the steward that his luggage would meet him on the quay, he set off in search of breakfast. But the door of the dining room was still locked: perhaps he was the only passenger disembarking at Cattaro? Sustained raffling of the brass handles eventually provoked a response. A sleepy waiter opened the door and set a place on the table that had only recently been his bed.
Harwell perceived a cruel irony in the fact that whereas he had been offered all sorts of food when he wasn't able to eat it, he now found only two brittle rolls and a pot of last night's coffee, partly warmed. There would be worse before long, he supposed, surprising himself with this gloomy reflection. He was a young man neither of great family nor of great intellectual achievements, but of energetic enthusiasm for whatever tomorrow might bring. And this trip -- he hardly presumed to call it a mission -- which was starting so unpromisingly, had seemed the perfect thing, seemed to suit him exactly. Harwell, little given to analysis or examination of motive, knew this in his bones, and it had been confirmed for him by Raymond the last time they met.
"You are extraordinarily lucky, Bron," Raymond said, as if he were about to complete his thought. Instead, there ensued a silence that lasted until Harwell looked over to catch that long, fine face, now half in shadow, closed in upon some reflection that would not be shared. Raymond was shifting his glass back and forth on the arm of his chair, an almost imperceptible motion that set the firelight to playing in the tiny amber lake of his brandy.
"Lucky," he went on at last, "because whether you know it or not, you have found something to do that will engage you completely, and a part of the world you will never tire of."
Excerpted from Montenegro by Starling Lawrence Copyright © 2006 by Starling Lawrence. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Starling Lawrence is the editor in chief and vice chairman of W.W. Norton & Company. He is the author of the novel Montenegro and the story collection Legacies. He lives in New York City and northwestern Connecticut.
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