Roumeli by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I have read a number of ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor’s books, including the most famous pair, ‘A Time of Gifts’ and ‘Between the Woods and the Water’. These were given to me while I was living in Japan by a very kind colleague, who visited from the UK and was shocked to discover that (this was pre Amazon and online bookselling) English literature was not all that widely available, even in Tokyo. The two books were part of a package that included Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. It was a wonderful gift, quite unnecessary and unexpected, which made it even more welcome.

‘The Traveller’s Tree’, PLF’s account of his travels in the Caribbean, is superb.

‘Roumeli’ is all about PLF’s travels and war experiences in Northern Greece. ‘Roumeli’ is not a name found on maps; it describes a loosely bordered region. The book is enjoyable but not that easy to read, since PLF is massively learned and his prose demonstrates that, sometimes, making it hard work. You have to admire his deep knowledge of Greece and the astonishing detail of his descriptions. It has its poetic, evocative moments. But there are a lot of lists; in that sense, it shares a stumbling block to enjoyment with the Iliad.

The book was written in the 1960s and obviously it describes a Greece that has changed a great deal. I recently started reading ‘City of Djinns’ by William Dalrymple but stopped as I realised that his description of India was already outdated. So travel books can age well or badly. ‘Roumeli’ does not age all that well but PLF’s style is unsurpassed, provided you can handle the abstruse vocabulary.

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