Ivo Andri’s native Bosnia, the setting for almost all of his fiction, functions as a microcosm of human life. It is for his characters a land of fear, hatred, and unrelenting harshness. To all who enter it, mere survival becomes a victory. Its effect on outsiders especially is one of confusion, panic, and sometimes even insanity. Bosnia’s strategic location in southern Europe has given it a peculiar character that Andri exploits fully in his novels. In ancient times, it formed a border between Eastern and Western empires, and later between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox forms of Christianity and culture. In the sixteenth century, it became an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, which was Turkish and Muslim. All of these religions, in addition to Judaism, existed in uneasy juxtaposition in Bosnia, with periodic outbursts of religious, ethnic, and political violence between various religious and ethnic groups.
Subject to constant nationalistic upheaval, foreign conquest, and the crude violence of Turkish rule, Bosnian history is for Andri the epitome of the dangers, sufferings, and uncertainties of human life. All people live in a kind of prison as they struggle against one another and against their own fears and insecurities. Undoubtedly, certain facts of Andri’s life help to explain his views. He spent both world wars in confinement, able to write yet unable to act in other ways. His efforts to keep Yugoslavia out of World War II failed, showing him his powerlessness as a diplomat to change the course of history. Finally, the literary heritage of Bosnia that Andri knew so thoroughly offers several important writers and cultural figures with similar views of human life.
Andri’s fiction is concerned not only with the unpredictability of human life but also with his characters’ attempts to understand their place in history, to escape their fears, and to find some measure of constancy and hope. He presents his characters against a background of the inexorable flow of time and its cumulative effect on future generations. His concept of history is not one of discrete periods of time but rather of the constant change that is to him the basic fact of human existence. His characters fail whenever they attempt to relive time rather than to understand its flow, when they concentrate on mere memory of the past rather than on its meaning for the future. In an essay, Andri stated: “Only ignorant and unreasonable men can maintain that the past is dead and by an impenetrable wall forever separated from the present. The truth is rather that all that man once thought and did is invisibly woven into that which we today think, feel, and do.”
Andri has been praised most often for the masterful character portrayals in his novels. His main characters are usually figures of relatively low social importance—priests, consuls, wealthy local farmers, petty bureaucrats, and small merchants—chosen by Andri for detailed treatment because on such persons the whole weight of the injustices, cruelties, and irrationalities of life tend to fall most heavily. As he says of hisprotagonist in Bosnian Chronicle: “He is one of those men who are predestined victims of great historic changes, because they neither know how to stand with these changes, as forceful and exceptional individuals do, nor how to come to terms with them, as the great mass of people manage to do.”
His other characters are drawn with equal skill. It has been said that there is no such thing as a flat character in an Andri novel. This pattern results from the fact that he explores carefully the background of every person whom he introduces, however briefly each appears. As a result, the reader knows all the characters intimately, yet the narrative flow is never unnecessarily interrupted in order to impart this information. It is a technique that serves Andri’s thematic purposes as well, for it embeds his characters more deeply in the stream of time. The plots of his novels develop out of this careful delineation of his characters’ pasts. The meaning of their lives is the product of that confluence of personal and national history of which all humans are made and yet relatively few novelists have portrayed as successfully as has Andri.
Although Andri’s first three novels were published simultaneously in 1945, Bosnian Chronicle was the first to be written after he returned to Belgrade in 1941. He began writing, he says, because it was a way of surviving. I remembered the moments in history when certain peoples seemed to lose out. I thought of Serbia and Bosnia blacked out in the Turkish tide of the sixteenth century. The odds against one were so monstrouseven hope was an aspect of despair.I pulled the past around me like an oxygen tent.
The act of writing under these conditions, he goes on, was “like drawing up a testament.”
Bosnian Chronicle is set in the town of Travnik during the period when French emperor Napoleon I was at the height of his power, from 1806 to 1814. Its main characters are the consuls and viziers who represent the various governments having an interest in Bosnia. The Turkish vizier is there because his empire “owns” Bosnia; the French consul, because the French are trying to extend their power inland from the coast; the Austrian consul, because the Austrians fear French power as a threat to their own. The protagonist of the novel is the French consul, Jean Daville, and the plot grows out of his efforts as a European to comprehend the strange mixture of Eastern and Western cultures that is Bosnia. He is alternately bewildered, frustrated, and horrified at the barbarity of Turkish rule, the ignorance of the peasantry, and the endless intrigues of the contending powers represented in Travnik. Daville’s ideals, formed during the French Revolution, are slowly being eroded and betrayed in this outpost of the empire; he comes to see that he is merely a pawn in a game of international politics played without principle or mercy.
Daville has trouble working with his friends as well as with his enemies. He and his assistant, Desfosses, a generation apart in age, epitomize the opposite approaches that Westerners take toward the Orient. Daville follows the “classical” strategy: He emphasizes order and form, tradition, pessimism about sudden change, and a refusal to take local culture seriously. Desfosses, on the other hand, follows the “Romantic” attitude: He approaches problems with optimism, energy, impatience with tradition, and a great respect for local culture.
The several Turkish viziers with whom the French consul must deal present him with complex moral and political dilemmas. The first one, Husref Mehmed Pasha, poisons an emissary from the sultan who has come to order Husref Pasha’s removal. Daville is shocked but can see no ready way to deal with the situation or even to reveal it to anyone. The second vizier, Ibrahim Halimi Pasha, is, like Daville, incurably pessimistic, but he is even more violent than Husref Pasha. Just when Daville believes he has found someone with whom he can solve diplomatic problems rationally, Ibrahim Pasha gives Daville a present of a sack full of ears and noses purportedly severed from the heads of rebellious Serbs; in actuality, the body parts were taken from Bosnian peasants who were massacred at a religious festival. Ibrahim Pasha also shoots one of his own army captains merely because the Austrians ask him to do so. Daville must acknowledge that “morbid circumstances, blind chance, caprice and base instincts” are simply taken for granted in Bosnia. A mindless anarchy seems to pervade everything when the bazaar riots against some captured Serbs, brutally torturing and executing some of them in the town square. The third vizier to appear in Travnik, Silikhtar Ali Pasha, makes no pretense of using anything but unbridled terror as his main instrument of policy.
One of Andri’s most common themes involves the various ways human beings attempt either to live with or to escape from the dismal conditions of human life. Desfosses and the Austrian consul’s wife try to escape through sexual desire, but their efforts are frustrated by chance and, in the wife’s case, by extreme instability. Cologna, physician at the Austrian consulate, converts to Islam to save his wife during the bazaar riots but is found dead the next morning at the base of a cliff. Daville himself attempts to bring order to his life through an epic he is writing about Alexander the Great; he never finishes it because, the narrator implies, he has no roots in this culture and therefore no way to nourish his creativity. Only Daville’s happy family life keeps him from losing his reason as the years pass. As he nears the end of his tenure in Travnik (Napoleon has been defeated in Russia and will soon abdicate), he concludes that there is really no such thing as progress in human affairs: In reality all roads led one around in a circle.The only things that changed were the men and the generation who travelled the path, forever deluded.One simply went on. The long trek had no point or value, save those we might learn to discover within ourselves along the way. There were no roads, no destinations. One just travelled onspent oneself, and grew weary.
Even though the reader undoubtedly must take Daville as a “chorus” character reflecting Andri’s own views, Daville does not have the last word in the novel. The work begins and ends not with Europeans but with native Bosnians in the small coffeehouses as they assess the import of the events in their region. The narrator shows that, ultimately, the Bosnian people will survive these various foreign occupations, their character having been tested in these trials of the body and spirit. As one of them says to Daville while the latter prepares to leave Bosnia forever: “But we remain, we remember, we keep a tally of all we’ve been through, of how we have defended and preserved ourselves, and we pass on these dearly bought experiences from father to son.” The stream of history carries away much good along with the bad, but their cumulative knowledge has formed the bedrock of the Bosnian character, and they will survive.
The fact that Andri did not write his first novel until he had more than twenty years’ experience with successful short stories meant that Bosnian Chronicle emerged as an unusually mature work. One of its weaknesses, however, is the characterization of its protagonist, Jean Daville. Even though the story is narrated from his point of view, he is never as fully developed or as believable as most of the other characters in the novel. The plot also suffers from being too episodic, lacking the sense of direction that a journey, for example, can give an episodic plot. Nevertheless, Bosnian Chronicle remains an impressive work, showing Andri’s extraordinary descriptive powers and his great gift for developing a memorable group of characters.
The Bridge on the Drina
Nowhere in Andri’s fiction is the handling of the great flow of history more impressive than in his novel The Bridge on the Drina. This work is a marvelous condensation of four centuries of Bosnian culture as acted out in the town of Viegrad and on its bridge across the Drina, linking Bosnia and Serbia, East and West. In its structure, this novel, too, is episodic, a fact that Andri emphasizes by labeling it a “chronicle.” Yet its plot is more successful than that of Bosnian Chronicle because the episodes, though they cover many years, are unified by the novel’s two great symbols, the bridge and the river. In addition, the author wisely devotes about half of the novel to the fifty-odd years before the destruction of the bridge at the beginning of World War I, the years in which all those things the bridge represents are most severely tested.
The bridge originated in the sixteenth century in the dreams of the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed Paṣha Sokollu. As a young peasant growing up in the nearby Bosnian village of Sokolovii, he had witnessed the horror of children being ferried across the Drina as blood sacrifices for the empire. Later, though he was to serve three sultans for more than sixty years and win battles on three continents, he would still remember his boyhood home by ordering that a bridge be built across the Drina at Viegrad as a way of exorcising his memory of the ferry of death. Ironically, in the first of many arbitrary deaths in the novel, Mehmed Paṣha himself is assassinated shortly after the bridge is completed.
The Bridge on the Drina, like all of Andri’s fiction, is filled with memorable characters. Early in the novel there is Abidaga, the ruthless supervisor of construction of the bridge. In what is undoubtedly one of the most horrifying scenes in Western literature, Abidaga catches a young Bosnian attempting to sabotage the project and has him impaled alive on a huge stake. There is Fata Avdagina, the ravishingly beautiful merchant’s daughter on her way to a wedding that will join her with a man she does not want to marry. There is Alihodja Mutevelic, the Muslim merchant and cleric whose fate in the last half of the novel personifies that of the bridge and of the Ottoman Empire: He dies gasping on the hill above the town, old and worn out, as the bridge just below him is destroyed by the opening salvos of what will become a world war. He cannot believe that a work made centuries ago for the love of God can be destroyed by human beings. There is Salko Corkan, the one-eyed vagabond who, drunk one night, dares to attempt what no one has before: to walk the ice-covered parapet of the bridge. He succeeds and becomes in later generations part of the folklore of the town. There is Milan Glasicanin, a wealthy young man who cannot stop gambling. One night on the bridge, he meets a mysterious stranger who, in a game of chance, takes him for everything he has. Andri had a great interest in and respect for the folklore of Bosnia. His merging of history and folklore in The Bridge on the Drina is one of the novel’s most impressive characteristics.
The symbolic function of the bridge and the river is obvious enough, verging on cliché, yet in Andri’s hands these obvious symbols become profoundly suggestive of what is ephemeral and what is permanent in human life. The river represents, above all, the ceaseless flow of time and history that continually threatens to obliterate all evidence of human effort. The bridge is many things. It is permanence and therefore the opposite of the river: “Its life, though mortal in itself, resembled eternity, for its end could not be perceived.” It is the perfect blend of beauty and utility, encouraging and symbolizing the possibilities of endurance: Life is wasted, and life endures. It is a symbol of humankind’s great and lasting works, of the finest impulses as expressed in the words of its builder: “the love of God.” Like all great works of art, though it is not completely safe from the ravages of time, it remains for...
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