Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 31, 2017

A Serbian Novel: The Bridge On the Drina

Although I’ve done my share of reading, there are gaps in my repertoire.

For example, I’d never read anything originally written in Serbian (or, to my knowledge, any South Slavic language).

Late in 2016 I got a “like” from the avid readers at Fangirls’ Bookshelves. As I always do when someone new clicks into UWS, I visited their blog. Their reading interests are wide-ranging, spanning cultures and languages. Some of their pieces are written in English, some in Serbian.

I learned that a Serbian writer, unknown to me, received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1961: Ivo Andrić. I started my 2017 reading with his most highly regarded book, The Bridge On the Drina (Serbian: На Дрини ћуприја/Na Drini ćuprija).

I widened my horizon, learned a great deal and discovered an excellent writer.

The major “character” in the book is, in fact, a bridge: the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina River in Višegrad, a town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

visegrad-bridge-by-klackalica

The red marker on the map below shows Višegrad, near the Serbian border. Andrić was born near there when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and lived most of his life in the successor state, Yugoslavia.

Map for Visegrad (640x483)

Completed in 1577, the bridge serves as setting, motif and framing device for a series of episodes that begin with its construction by the Ottoman Turkish empire using impressed local labor and continue until the onset of WWI. During that 350 year span, Andrić introduces more than a dozen successive (often overlapping) story lines. There are scores, perhaps more than a hundred characters.

The book’s scope represents the complex and — literally — Byzantine nature of life in the region through the centuries, lived by people in conflict with or coexisting with one another, matters complicated by differences of ethnic origin, language, traditions and religion.

Andrić is a skilled writer. Although his book lacks a single unifying human persona that would classify it as a traditional novel, the characters are vividly memorable. He has a gift for describing faces, personalities and details that are absolutely cinematic in nature. His people seem real, although many are from eras and cultures unfamiliar to me.

The residents of the town, themselves, are a diverse mixture: Bosniaks and Serbs, Catholics, Muslims and Jews. As the book progresses, they’re ruled first by the Turks then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the cast of characters includes numerous authority figures of greater or lesser scope, and a range of personal styles ranging from distant tolerance to abysmal cruelty.

Reading in translation, I was unable to appreciate a fine point of the original, in which, according to Wikipedia, the local characters use the Ijekavian dialect of Serbo-Croatian primarily spoken west of the Drina (toward Sarajevo), while the narrator uses the Ekavian dialect spoken primarily in Serbia (to the east). The translation does make clear the language differences between locals and their Turkish or Austrian overlords.

The bridge serves as the central setting for key events in each episode, including town meetings, quiet evening interludes between lovers and more than a few executions and tortures (some excruciatingly dire).

It’s difficult for me to say if, in the end, Andrić is optimistic or pessimistic about life in his Bosnia and the bridge itself. The bridge is obviously a metaphor for connecting people via transport and trade, but also a symbol for the power of empires. The bridge’s survival stands as a testament to the greatness of a former empire, even as its successor uses it to extend its own power. One nation’s memorial becomes a tool for the next and, for the locals, is a symbol of conquest even as it endures at the center of their lives.

Andrić wrote the book in 1945, near the end of WWII, when local partisans in the Višegrad region had been in a long conflict with occupying German forces. He had been Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Germany, recalled due to the war.

I compare the book’s perspective to Tolstoy or perhaps Carlo Levi, in which the actions of governments fall hardest on local populations, who must endure, lacking any way to change what sweeps upon them.

The book ends in 1914 as WWI begins and the bridge’s central arches have been destroyed. The bridge was restored in 1940 only to be destroyed again in WWII. Its has now been restored again, and spans the Drina still.

Exploring the background of the book, I learned that Serbian is nearly unique among European languages in that it is synchronically digraphic. Nearly all Serbs read and write their language in both Cyrillic and Latinate alphabets with equal skill, and can switch effortlessly between them. The Bridge On the Drina was originally written in Serbian Cyrillic.

Andrić’s charaters are ineffably human. None are perfectly wise or foolish, noble or ignoble. They’re enmeshed in a swirl of conflicting allegiances, alliances, languages and cultures. They’re individuals. In a  memorable series of stories, Ivo Andrić brings centuries past to life, and we understand what has passed before.

Nothing demonstrates the accuracy of Mr. Andrić’s portrayal than a final, bitter irony.

The dissolution of Yugoslavia was accompanied by what we in the U.S. call the “Bosnian War,” although it encompassed the entire region. In 1992, Bosnian Serb militias killed more than 200 Bosniak civilians on the bridge and threw their bodies into the Drina. The episode resonates with far too many like it from the bridge’s past described in Mr. Andrić’s fine book. Andrić  died in 1975, but would certainly have been dismayed to see it all happen again.

Have you seen the bridge? Have you read the book? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017

CLICK HERE to visit Visegrad’s own town website description of the bridge (and other local features), viewable in both Cyrillic and Latinate Serbian as well as charmingly translated English.

The Bridge On the Drina, Ivo Andric, translator Lovett F. Edwards, University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Image of  Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge © Klackalika 2004 via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

My thanks to Fangirls’ Bookshelves for the inspiration.

 

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Responses

  1. Interesting premise to have the bridge as the main character. Your opening reminded me of a talk I heard about a woman who read one book (translated into English) from every country in the world, which I thought was a fascinating project. Linking her blog here: https://ayearofreadingtheworld.com

    Like

    • Thank you for the link to Ms. Morgan’s site. Her list represents a rich source of future reading … if one has the energy for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve never seen the bridge-except in this beautiful picture. Neither have I read the book, but it sound very interesting. I have read very little from this part of the world. I do remember reading some things about Byzantine culture in college but I’m sure it was tip of the iceberg stuff compared to what you have read.

    Like

  3. Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, part travelogue and part 20th century historical guide, is a very enlightening book about the region with a particular focus on the roots of present day European terrorism. Though written in 1993, it still resonates today.

    Like

  4. The bridge on the Drina is a key to understanding Europe. I have recently written a post on my blog on how this vivid book relates to what has happened a few years ago in ex-Yugoslavia:

    https://livingcolorsstudio.com/2017/05/01/talking-about-bridges/

    Feel free to read

    Like

    • Thank you for visiting. I look forward to reading your account.

      Like


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