The Bridge on the Drina

by Ivo Andrić

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Critical Evaluation

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Ivo Andri, a leading Yugoslav writer for four decades and the only Nobel Prize winner among the southern Slav writers, was always interested in his native Bosnia, and many of his works have Bosnia as a background. The Bridge on the Drina is a perfect example. The story of the bridge can be seen as a survey of Bosnian history between 1516 and 1914.

The story is completely historical. As a lifelong diplomat of the kingdom of Yugoslavia, Andri was also an astute student of history, and he often studied historical facts and documents in preparation for the writing of his works. Even his doctoral thesis, “The Development of the Spiritual Life of Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Sovereignty” (1924), reveals his passion for history; it also served him well while writing this novel and other works. The Bridge on the Drina encompasses the entire period of the Turkish rule of the Balkans, mirroring the birth and death of the Ottoman occupation of Bosnia. It is a broadly conceived panorama of cultural changes brought about by the Turkish reign and of the multicultural and multireligious nation resulting from it. It also depicts the inevitable and multifaceted conflicts of the area. The novel is, therefore, a good source of general information about Bosnia, although not a substitute for a scholarly history.

On a personal level, The Bridge on the Drina serves its author as a tribute to his childhood. As a little boy, he was brought to Viegrad after the death of his father and left there by his mother to live with relatives. It is no wonder that the mentor of the bridge, Mehmed Pasha Sokolli, ordered the bridge built as a memory of his childhood. Thus, the story of the bridge embodies a return to one’s roots and a monument to one’s childhood.

Another symbolic connotation of the bridge lies in its long life, outlasting many generations and all the changes through the centuries since its construction. Andri concludes no fewer than twelve chapters out of twenty-four with a short paragraph extolling the bridge as a symbol of the permanence of all life. Considering the constant changes taking place around the bridge, its permanence serves as a comforting and life-affirming value.

Andri imparts yet another symbolic meaning to the bridge by calling it a thing of beauty, a reflection of humanity’s age-old desire to create beauty and to enrich life. The inborn need of humanity to express itself in the arts found its fulfillment in the creation of this beautiful edifice that defies transience.

The final symbolic interpretation of the bridge lies in its spanning of the two shores, as if connecting two worlds, the east and the west, and the different nationalities, religions, and cultures of Bosnia. Himself a diplomat who saw the main key to success in the art of compromise, Andri uses the metaphor of the bridge to underline the need for minimizing differences for the sake of living in harmony. The tragic events of Bosnia over the centuries clearly show what happens when this plea for harmony goes unheeded. In this sense, The Bridge on the Drina manifests an eerie mystical quality uncommon for a work of literature.

Andri’s narrative is characterized by a measured realistic style, reflecting the stoic firmness and beauty of the bridge. Nevertheless, beneath that calm exterior, life manifests itself in many forms and events are never static. As his translator, Lovett F. Edwards, notes, Andri’s style has “the sweep and surge of the sea, slow and yet profound, with occasional flashes of wit and irony.” The novel is unusual in that it covers a long period of time, making it difficult to concentrate on character development. The episodic nature of narration, however, lends itself to the creation of individual pieces that stand by themselves. When put together, they create a remarkable mosaic, echoing the principal message of Andri’s entire philosophy that life is an incomprehensible miracle that is constantly being consumed and eroded, yet one that lasts and stands firmly like the bridge on the Drina.

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