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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Sarajevo

By Rob Packer

I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere like Sarajevo. No other country that I’ve visited has seen war as recently as Bosnia, no other city a siege. I was ten when Bosnia declared its independence and was immediately consumed by war. It’s the first conflict that I remember well and I think that the memories that I do have will always be connected with the names of the country, the capital and several other cities in the country—a sign to Travnik or a bus to Srebrenica bring back memories of news footage of the war. These won’t go away; but now that I’ve been there, they’ll be mixed with my own memories of the country.

Unlike Mostar, Sarajevo feels much more alive: the city is much bigger and the far-wider rebuilding effort makes you feel that it’s looking towards a normalized future, rather than just towards the past. Having said that, however, history bears its mark on the city: if you simplify things, Sarajevo’s tramline runs from east to west, passing from the Ottoman-era market of Baščaršija through Austro-Hungarian Ferhadija to the Yugoslav city built for the 1984 Olympics, which later became known as Sniper Alley during the Bosnian War where snipers from the Serbian army were able to shoot Sarajevans as they crossed the road.

The Sebilj, a fountain at the centre of Baščaršija, Sarajevo's Turkish quarter.

Ferhadija, the main drag of Sarajevo's Austro-Hungarian centre.

Zmaja od Bosne, a.k.a. Sniper Alley during the war. The yellow building on the left is the Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

As I walked through the Sarajevo Under Siege exhibition at the city’s History Museum, I was reminded of the hardship that people had to go through 15 years ago—a lot of which I’m also ashamed to say passed me by at the time. Read more of this post

Mostar: Is it over?

By Rob Packer

Apart from the odd piece of political news from Sarajevo about the possibility of further fragmentation of the country, Bosnia and Hercegovina has produced remarkably little news since the Dayton Accords were signed in 1995 and I think most people would assume that no news is good news, that the conflict is over and that life has moved on. Walking around Mostar today, however, the scars of war are still more than visible: for example, the walk from where I’m staying to Mostar’s famously destroyed, and now rebuilt, Old Bridge is roughly 10 minutes and passes by several reminders of the past. Firstly, you come to what was a park before the war and is now an Islamic cemetery—Muslims should be buried within a day of dying and I am assuming the cemeteries ran out of space. You next come to Bulevar, which was the frontline between Croat and Bosniak forces for the period of the war when they were fighting each other: if you turn left you come to at least six of the bombed out buildings that scatter the city, if you look right you see an unfeasibly tall church spire of a rebuilt Catholic church (photo). And if you continue onwards you come to the heart of Mostar’s tourist area around the Old Bridge, a beautiful Ottoman-era bridge destroyed by Croat shelling during the war and since rebuilt.

Mostar's centrepiece, the Old Bridge.

Crossing the former frontline walking into the old town.

Around its Turkish-era central core, Mostar is beautiful in a very different way to the Austrian and Italian influences of Croatia, but it was the reminders of war that stick in my mind as much as the city’s mosques and arched bridge. Read more of this post

Bosnian Coffee

By Rob Packer

One of the first things I noticed arriving in Bosnia & Herzegovina—Mostar is in Herzegovina—is that the coffee’s different. In Split, for example, people seem to spend all afternoon sipping espressos at cafés on the Riva (the waterfront), so much so that I started to wonder if half-days are the norm in Croatia. Bosnians drink espresso too, but far more interesting was my first cup of bosanska kafa (kava is the Croatian word I was told later in the day), which I was offered while I checked my email. When it arrived, it was something I didn’t think was even possible: Turkish coffee with milk[1].

Bosanska kafa (Bosnian coffee). Also known as Turkish coffee, Greek coffee, Cypriot coffee and many other names.

This kind of culinary innovations based on immigration, colonization and invasion fascinate me Read more of this post

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