Why Angels Fall: A Journey through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo by Victoria Clark - review by Anna Reid

Anna Reid

Among the Mad Clerics

Why Angels Fall: A Journey through Orthodox Europe from Byzantium to Kosovo


Macmillan 427pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

‘What the West has to understand’, Father Tikhon of Moscow’s Sretensky monastery tells the author of this book, ‘is that Russia can’t be run in a vulgar democratic way. It can only be a huge country run by a mighty hand.’ Such a view has nothing to do with Fascism, he goes on, ‘because the mentality of Russian people is absolutely non-aggressive. Germans wouldn’t have gone quietly to the gulag camps in their millions like Russians did.’ And the Russians who sent their fellow countrymen to the camps? ‘The gulag camps were not set up by Russians but by Jews.’

With his rose-bowered seventeenth-century church, mobile phone and swivel chair, Tikhon is one of a string of varyingly racist, sexist, nationalist or plain lunatic clerics Victoria Clark interviews on what must have been an extremely trying tour of Orthodox Europe. In Croatia, Archimandrite Benedict of the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Krka defends the paramilitary leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic: ‘Everyone blames the Serbs, but we would never be the first to do evil. You have to remember that there are more Muslims and that they have more children, so they’re bound to have more victims.’ Flirtatious Bishop Vasilije of Tuzla warns Clark that Britain is being overrun by Asian Muslims, and advises her to enter a nunnery, because ‘Our nuns are simple and good. They do not paint their nails or pluck their eyebrows.’ A Romanian hermit tells her, over jam pancakes, that nonbelieving women are frigid, and on Patmos a young Greek inveighs against the Whore of Babylon (New York, natch), bar codes, and the Schengen Agreement, all ingredients in a satanic attack on Orthodoxy by the West. When Clark arrives in Siberia, due to meet yet another straggly-bearded archimandrite, one cannot blame her for half hoping that he will refuse to be interviewed after all: ‘I did not want to be bullied, or have to suffer those dark blue eyes boring into my soul.’

Orthodoxy’s penchant for mad-monkery, Clark argues, is the fault of the Great Schism of 1054 between Rome and Byzantium, reinforced by the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople 150 years later. As a result, ‘western Christendom can be said to have lost its heart, eastern Christendom its mind.’ Today the Schism is reflected in the gulf between the countries inside and outside the European Union and Nato, whose ‘eastern borders are set to follow almost exactly Europe’s oldest political faultline’.

It is an oversimplification, of course (what about Orthodox Greece and Catholic Slovakia?), but the thesis provides a peg on which to hang some colourful vignettes from Orthodox history, from the eleventh-century monk who wandered Mount Athos on all fours like a sheep, in obedience to Psalm 49, to Cyprus’s Archbishop Makarios, who whiled away his internment in British hands with a skipping-rope and a dog called Bimbo. And as always in this part of the world, the past is also the present. The Serbs’ disastrous martyr-complex dates back to the battle of Kosovo Field of 1389, on the eve of which an eagle is said to have dropped a talking book into the hands of their prince, Dusan. Dusan could choose, the book said, between victory over the Turks and glory on earth, or defeat, and immortality in heaven. Dusan chose the latter, and the Serbs have seen themselves as Orthodoxy’s Christ-like redeemers ever since. On cue, one of Clark’s Serb fixers justifies the Yugoslav wars on the grounds that ‘in places where you have atrocities… you also have people who rise very high’; ‘if Serbia has war criminals, and obviously she has, then she has got some real saints as well.’

Why Angels Fall is slow to get going, thanks to an overlarge chunk of potted Byzantine history in its opening chapter. And though much of Clark’s writing is lovely – the lights on a boat threading its way through the Bosphorus look like ‘the seed-pearl trimmings on Byzantine royal robes’, the Sea of Marmara at sunset like ‘the scuffed gold background of an old icon’ – it sometimes lapses into the clunky jollity of the friends-and-family newsletter. But I finished the book wanting to meet this intelligent, warm-hearted writer, and to follow her to some of the places she visited: to Romania’s painted churches, bright with angels amidst flaming beechwoods; to Pristina’s lovable Gracanica, with its herringbone brick and ‘chubbily bubbling domes’; and to Macedonia’s lakeside shrine to Saint Kliment, whose heart can still be heard beating inside his tomb. Where Clark does not take us to is any of Orthodox Europe’s countless squalid tower blocks, derelict factories, or demoralised schools and hospitals. Doing so would have explained better than the Schism why so many East Europeans are turning to Protestant as well as Orthodox fundamentalism, and why so many are taking out their frustrations on the West.

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