Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s peregrinations across Western, Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe have become almost as legendary as his wartime exploits with the Greek Resistance. The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos is the long-awaited third volume of his reminiscences of his teenage walking tour from Holland to Constantinople in the 1930s. Long-awaited because after the termination of his second volume of travel reminiscences, Between the Woods and the Water, no one knew if the journey would ever reach its intended goal, and when Patrick Leigh Fermor died in 2011, mystery surrounded the condition of the notes and literary remains he left behind. However, the editors Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper explain in the introduction that he was still working at the time of his death on a revised manuscript based on a typewritten draft from the 1960s, substantial but incomplete. The Broken Road is that text, and as they say, even its title “is an acknowledgment that Paddy’s written journey never reached its destination.”
Fragmentary it may be, but the reader certainly isn’t being sold short. Even though the full narrative breaks off literally mid-sentence as Leigh Fermor heads down the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria towards Constantinople, his travelogue has already filled 265 fascinating pages by then, from the northwest corner of Bulgaria to Sofia then north to Bucharest via central Bulgaria, and east and south to the Black Sea coast. The subsequent youthful jottings from his “Green Diary” that end the volume, recording some fragmentary impressions of the Turkish capital and a far more detailed account of his stay at various monasteries on Mount Athos, are far more than makeweight, as they allow comparison with the voice of the young Leigh Fermor, without the overlay of recollection and scholarship that he added later on. Neither of the two preceding volumes of the trilogy were exactly through-composed, and even if the series will never have the triumphant conclusion of a final arrival in Constantinople, its episodic character suits this outcome pretty well.
Also, whether or not due to its half-finished character, The Broken Road manages to bring some more interesting revelations and admissions from Leigh Fermor himself. Although he touched on his character more than once in the preceding books, this time he seems to divulge far more, including some doubts and misgivings about his whole odyssey. “What on earth was I up to? An embarrassing question.” Other moments of uncomfortable honesty, like the bizarre fight in the bedroom of a Bulgarian friend over some imagined insult or misunderstanding, make the young Leigh Fermor far more sympathetic than the rather lumpen and brazenly intrepid figure he cuts in his more finished narratives. If its half-finished character means that disclosures make it through to us that otherwise might have been cut, then maybe we should be even more grateful that The Broken Road is in the form it is.
The same types of savory details and fascinating vignettes from the earlier volumes are still on full view here, from Leigh Fermor’s flirtations en route to grotesque intrusions such as the gelded Russian cabmen of Bucharest. His love of all things Greek is even more visible here, but his eye and affection for the other peoples he sojourns with are undiminished by it. The Broken Road is sure to be as essential for any future visitor to Bulgaria as its sister volumes have been for travelers to Hungary and Romania. “It would be impossible to exaggerate the passionate excitement and delight that infected every second,” Leigh Fermor writes of his entire journey, and readers have been getting exactly that same enjoyment – albeit at second hand – for years now. Thoroughly recommended.