The Bridge over the Drina

Review of Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge over the Drina

By Rob Packer

The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t always the timeless honour for posterity that people often associate it with and some of its winners remain as relative unknowns on the world stage: Ivo Andrić, the prize’s Yugoslavian recipient in 1961, probably falls into this category despite his fame in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Andrić’s most famous work is The Bridge over the Drina, a book written while the author was under house arrest in Belgrade during the Second World War and set in Višegrad, the eastern Bosnian town where he grew up.

I read the book while I was in the Balkans earlier this month and the cover of Harvill’s edition promises that “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists”. The novel fits within the nation-defining tradition that often combines history and fiction in new nations trying to find their place in the world, and reminded me of Jan Neruda, one of the first Czech writers to write in Czech. Rather than having a central human character, the novel revolves around Višegrad’s Ottoman bridge charting the history of the town and the townspeople over nearly 350 years; and as you read the novel it seems more like a fictionalized history book than historical fiction, which gives it more structure than The Railway, a novel that also lacks clearly defined central characters and which I also read recently.

As you read The Bridge over the Drina, history seems to be a faceless, but powerful force: Višegrad might sit at a cultural crossroads between the worlds of Christianity and Islam, but history happens around and to the town and is controlled by outsiders with the inhabitants watching uncomprehendingly as they sit on the bridge drinking coffee. In the context of only basic education, the townspeople learn by observation alone: for most of the book, the bridge is a constant, unquestionable presence to the characters, even though when the Ottomans originally built the bridge, it was seen as a futile, even godless, act; and at the end as the bridge is mined as the Austro-Hungarian army fall back, its partial destruction is seen as another futile and godless act.

One of the things that seems to emphasize itself again and again in the book is the constant ethnic divide in the town between “Turks”—the term historically used for Bosniak Muslims—and the Serbs. It is a neighbourly attitude mixed with suspicion rather than a hostile one; however, suspicion and fear come to the fore whenever history starts to act on the town, at Serbian independence in the 19th century or when the Ottoman Empire withdraws from Bosnia. In some ways the divide seems insurmountable; and looking at Andrić’s own political views, it can only be overcome by removing foreign rule and independence—in 1945, this is Yugoslavia’s rather than Bosnia’s independence.

Going back to the promise on the book’s cover, it does put the Balkans’ recent struggles in historical perspective and is an excellent introduction to the region, and Bosnia in particular, which always seems to be a microcosm of European ethnic difficulties. The way it threads through history and its intensely regional viewpoint isn’t for everyone, but for anyone interested in the Balkans it’s unmissable.

Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija/На Дрини ћуприја), Harvill 1994. (Original 1945)

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