Book Reviews - Review 389
The Bridge over the Drina
Category: Fiction | Published: 1945 | Review Added: 21-08-2019
If asked to name a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature it seems unlikely that many, at least in western Europe and North America, would immediately come up with the name of Ivo Andrić, the 1961 laureate. This is unfortunate, not just for literary reasons, but also because, as a recent biography by the German journalist Michael Martens shows, his other life in politics was extremely remarkable, even by the standards of the twentieth century.
Andrić was born into a Croat family in Bosnia Herzegovina in 1892, when officially it was still part of the Turkish Empire but was effectively governed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which formally annexed it in 1908. Like many young intellectuals he disliked Austrian rule, even though he was able to study throughout its vast territories, for example in Vienna and Kraków. His aspiration was for a new southern Slav state for the various ethnic groups of the region, an ambition that was realised after the end of the First World War with the creation of Yugoslavia.
Andrić threw in his lot with this new entity, entering its diplomatic service and eventually becoming ambassador to Berlin, a post he held in the critical year of 1941. In order to pursue his ambitions in the Balkans, Hitler was pressing Yugoslavia for a treaty. By his standards, the offer was quite favourable, as no military occupation was demanded, only rights of transit. However, the proposed treaty was rejected in Belgrade by crowds of demonstrators who had been encouraged by the British. The result was full and brutal German occupation.
Although Andrić could have gone to Switzerland, he stayed loyal to his idea of Yugoslavia, returning home and devoting himself to writing. After the war he retained the same loyalty, being willing to serve the new communist state under Marshal Tito, although he did not share the same political ideology. In return, although he was distrustful, Tito was willing to exploit Andrić's fame as a writer in the interests of his country. After Hitler, he now, as part of official delegations, met both Stalin and Mao Zedong. Like Bertolt Brecht, he was faced with many dilemmas, yet he stayed loyal to Yugoslavia in all circumstances.
It is claimed by detractors that the changing role of Yugoslavia in the world played a part in the Nobel award. In the early 1960s, in a world marked by Cold War hostilities, India's Jawaharlal Nehru and Tito were the leaders of the non-aligned movement, viewed by many as a positive alternative to the big power blocs. The other criticism aimed against Andrić and specifically the novel to be considered here, was that his work was set in an unimportant and uninteresting part of the world. The famous German critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki asked starkly: "What has Višegrad got to do with us?", a reference to the setting of the novel, the town where Andrić spent his childhood. Such a criticism could be levelled at Flaubert's Ionville or George Eliot's Middlemarch. The real question is surely whether a writer can turn the seemingly dullest provincial backwater into great Literature, with Flaubert and Eliot providing shining examples of this.
Centring his narrative on its bridge, now incidentally a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Andrić relates in what can be seen as a documentary novel the story of Višegrad beginning with the initial plan of the leading Turkish official Mehmed Pasha, who was born in Bosnia but, as a boy, in keeping with a cruel practice of the time, was taken to Turkey to be groomed into a Turk, something that at least offered a way to fame and fortune. Initially viewed with suspicion by superstitious locals who sought to prevent its realisation, it was finally completed in 1577. After the account of the bridge's opening, Andrić writes: "In the changes and the quick burgeoning of human generations it remained as unchanged as the waters that flowed beneath it." (p.71) It is against the background of the bridge, that he narrates the history of over three centuries, concluding at the outbreak of war in 1914 and the blowing up of part of the bridge. As intended, the bridge initially brings progress and prosperity in that it improves communications in a peripheral part of the Turkish Empire. However, as frontiers change and this empire begins to lose territory, its commercial significance diminishes. Nevertheless, it still remains important for the townspeople, not least because certain spaces on it also serve as a meeting place, especially for the town's men. It, along with the river, often plays a role in the narration of the incidents on which Andrić bases numerous chapters following the account of its construction. It is the place where a compulsive gambler makes one last desperate attempt to reverse his fortunes. The river is central to the story of a beautiful girl who, rather than accept the man chosen for her, throws herself into the water but lives on in folk memory. The stories from different centuries amount to a kind of "comédie humaine", albeit on a much smaller scale than Balzac's great project. There is, as the above quotation implies, a tension between continuity and change but continuity increasingly prevails as the town and its bridge remain cut off from the modern world, with the two largest communities, Moslem and Serb, co-existing more or less peacefully.
Everything changes with the arrival of the Austrians. Not least with the construction of a railway the pattern of life changes. The last part of Andrić's work comes to resemble more a typical novel in that it relates changing events over a limited period. Modern politics comes to the fore with Austria promising the townspeople a better future. This propaganda provokes the following authorial comment, which does not seem inapplicable to the modern world: "Whenever a government feels the need of promising peace and prosperity to its citizens by means of a proclamation, it is time to be on guard and expect the opposite." (p.220) Increasingly ranged against the Austrians are the Serb nationalists, whose ideology has spread thanks to the modern developments that have reached Višegrad. Young people have the opportunity to travel more and to study, for example, with the result that they are exposed to new political and social movements.
Despite his own sympathies at the time, Andrić does not portray the Serb nationalists entirely sympathetically. There is a long and bitter argument between the minor clerk Glasičanan, who has never left his native town, and the more travelled student Stiković, who has seduced the schoolteacher Zorka, in whom Glasičanan also had a romantic interest. Stiković is told: "Even that nationalist idea you preach so ardently is only a special form of vanity. For you are incapable of loving your mother or your sister or your own blood brother, so how much less an idea." (p.251) Andrić's sympathies would appear to lie with Glasičanan, as he concentrates on how, after the argument, he and Zorka gradually become closer again. When he asks her to accompany him to the United States, she asks for thirty days to consider the offer. Before this deadline war breaks out and Glasičanan decides to leave to fight for Serbia. She is left behind weeping.
There is one other individual fate at that time that Andrić narrates movingly, that of the Turkish shopkeeper and elder Alihodja. Since the arrival of the Austrians he has observed the declining role of his community, whilst realising that nothing can be done. When the Austrians decide to retreat and blow the bridge up, he is alone in his nearby shop. He survives the explosion but dies as he tries to make his way home. His death, along with the destruction of the bridge, underlines the end of an era going back to the sixteenth century.
There remains the question of the relevance of the novel raised by Reich-Ranicki. I have referred to the way how, in the middle part of the novel, Andrić, like most great novelists, narrates stories that show perennial human dilemmas and weaknesses present in all societies. At the more political level, a narrative around different groups of people living together in one place must surely resonate in the modern interconnected world. The bridge itself is a powerful symbol in this kind of context; It is worth pointing out that a picture of a bridge was chosen to adorn euro bank notes. Finally, as I write this a few days after the installation of a new prime minister in the United Kingdom, whose government seems intent on burning the metaphorical bridges that link it to the European Union, the link made in the quotation between nationalism and vanity may well resonate with many. To sum up: The Bridge over the Drina can be wholeheartedly recommended.
Stuart Parkes, Malta, July 2019