Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911
According to some critics, Bosnian Chronicle is Ivo Andri’s best work. Although not as popular as The Bridge on the Drina, it contains many basic features of Andri’s writing. Perhaps for that reason, it was translated three times into English: as Bosnian Story, translated by Kenneth Johnstone in 1958, with a revised edition in 1979; as Bosnian Chronicle, translated by Joseph Hitrec in 1963; and as The Days of the Consuls, translated by Celia Hawkesworth and Bogdan Raki in 1992. Andri assiduously studied archives and other historical sources for this and his other major works, both complete and unfinished.
The events in the novel take place in the first decade of the nineteenth century, primarily in Travnik, a consular town in central Bosnia. Travnik, as well as most of Bosnia, was occupied by the Ottoman Empire following centuries of conquest of Balkan lands. The French had just occupied nearby Dalmatia and were concerned with the Turkish presence in Bosnia; the Austrians had always regarded neighboring Bosnia as a territory of their utmost concern. A combination of these three factors made a fertile ground for intrigues, in addition to executions of foreign policy matters of the three states extremely active in European affairs at the time. The consulate in Travnik was situated at the westernmost border of the Ottoman Empire and was the residence of a vizier. Since France established its presence in the vicinity and the Turks were forced to retreat from Hungary, Travnik had acquired a significance beyond its strategic and political value.
Although the development of the novel’s protagonists to a large degree was influenced by historical events, Bosnian Chronicle is more of a study of its characters than an historical novel. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, there were three Turkish consuls, or viziers, in Travnik, all three different in nature yet all conducting their duty for the advantage of the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed-Pasha, a former slave from Georgia, never forgets the state he serves with a friendly face and a smile, which makes it easier for other consuls to work with him. Ibrahim-Pasha is the opposite; he and his assistants and servants, a “museum of monsters,” as the local people call them, make it difficult for him to work with the consuls. Ali-Pasha is the worst of the three. Efficient and merciless, he immediately executes all common criminals, believing that the Ottoman Empire must rule foreign territories with an iron fist.
The viziers are confronted by the French consul Daville, a well-educated and cultured man who writes classical poetry and admires Napoleon I. He has the difficult task of upholding the civility he is accustomed to in a primitive Balkan backwater. Needless to say, he often ends up on the short end in the struggle. To make matters worse, he is often shortchanged by the Austrian consul, von Mitterer, a cunning diplomat, who is interested primarily in taking advantage of the two adversaries’ confrontations.
The demise of Napoleon I cuts short Daville’s career, as well as the attempts of the French and Austrian consuls to bring some civilization to a primitive society. A mitigating force in this gloomy ambience is the role of women in the novel, especially Daville’s wife. A deeply religious and emancipated woman, she helps her husband function in a manner corresponding to their upbringing.
There are several themes in Bosnian Chronicle. The difference between the East and the West is sharply pointed out. Fatalism, resignation, mistrust of foreigners and everything foreign, and disregard for the rights of individuals are contrasted by the comparatively enlightened world of France and Austria. The Westerners are mistrusted not only by their diplomatic opponents but also by the populace at large, which points to the way of life and thinking of the two worlds. Andri does not treat this phenomenon as a matter of historical truth but as the personal experiences in the interplay of the main characters and the people at large. This makes Bosnian Chronicle not exactly a historical chronicle but rather a collection of human dramas and deep-seated conflicts. The important historical events at the beginning of the nineteenth century throw only a long shadow over the lives of the individual people of Bosnia.
Another theme found in the novel is the role of women. In addition to the aforementioned activity of Daville’s wife, other female characters point to different kinds of women. Here Andri compares the Asian women, who are little more than the objects of men’s pleasure, to the Western women, who are more like partners to their men. In addition, Bosnian Chronicle also confirms the optimism expressed in many of Andri’s works that evil must be fought at all levels and a ray of hope is more than just that. The novel is thus raised to the level of universality, as is Andri’s wont.
As he does in in other works, Andri uses this novel to express his own thoughts on life and history. His main idea is that, despite all the bleakness and backwardness, life throbs beneath the surface and human beings continue to strive toward a better life. Although it is difficult to say whether the bleakness and backwardness in this novel are caused by the Turkish rule of an iron fist or by the Westerners’ lack of goodwill and pursuit of their own interests, human beings, even in such a backward state, can hope. Herein lies the universal meaning of Bosnian Chronicle.
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