On a Borrowed Horse

Patrick Leigh Fermor

By

Michael Ondaatje

It is not just in his own books that Patrick Leigh Fermor has that delicious off-hand gift of description of the world he travels through. Reading his introduction to Miklos Banffy’s trilogy, The Writing on the Wall, a great work whose recent popularity is partly the result of Fermor’s championing of it, you see him again draw you into a rare and new place, even if it is someone else’s story:


I first drifted into the geographical background of this remarkable book in the spring and summer of 1934, when I was nineteen, halfway through an enormous trudge from Holland to Turkey. Like many travellers, I fell in love with Budapest and the Hungarians, and by the time I got to the old principality of Transylvania, mostly on a borrowed horse, I was even deeper in…

Ever since the arrival of the Magyars ten centuries ago, the family had been foremost among the magnates who conducted Hungarian and Transylvanian affairs, and their portraits – with their slung dolmans, brocade tunics, jewelled scimitars and fur kalpaks with plumes like escapes of steam – hung on many walls.

The world Banffy describes was Edwardian Mitteleuropa. The men, however myopic, threw away their spectacles and fixed in monocles … hundreds of acres of forest were nightly lost at chemin de fer; at daybreak lovers stole away from tousled four -posters through secret doors, and duels were fought, as they still were when I was there.