Ivo Andrić Andrić, Ivo (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Andrić, Ivo (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Andrić, Ivo 1892–1975

A Serbian novelist, short story writer, and poet, Andrić is usually described as an epic novelist whose principal themes are fear and human isolation. A skilled craftsman and excellent storyteller, he writes in a lyrical, poetic style about his native region, endowing it with universal significance. In a world where the individual is dominated by historical forces, Andrić sees the enduring beauty of art as man's sole consolation. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 57-60.)

While the subject of all three [novels in the Bosnian trilogy] are the people of Bosnia, Bosnian Chronicle delves deepest into those elements of the turbulent Bosnian heritage which give it its unique ethnic and spiritual flavor. This is the territory—roughly the size of West Virginia—which has been the contending ground of Eastern and Western cultures for almost two thousand years….

This, then, is the tortured, flamboyant tapestry of Andrić's stories—stories in which Bosnian men and women live their perilous and extraordinary lives amid oppression and cruelty, ever haunted by visions of freedom and human dignity which history has dangled before them but has been painfully slow to deliver. (p. v)

The main themes of Ivo Andrić's writing—causative interplay of guilt and human suffering, the individual versus tyranny, the warping of men's destinies through historic circumstance—which are explored singly in some of his stories, are woven in Bosnian Chronicle into a harmonious whole. The elegiac mood of his early poetry, the preoccupation with personal sin as an agent of general evil, which marks his longer stories written between the wars, are transmuted here into a relentless, many-leveled scrutiny of the character, psychology, and moral sap of a whole people. What is the truth behind the harshness of Bosnian life and its tormented heritage, how real is that audible and visible melancholy which the Austrian Colonel von Mitterer, in Bosnian Chronicle, speciously calls Urjammer—ancient misery? Why, as a discerning Yugoslav critic has asked, is "everything weighed down by some heavy and sinister burden, as if paying back who knows what kind of ancient and eternal debt"?

For his answer Andrić turns to the past, and his quest is absorbing and illuminating. The act is neither escapism nor a deliberate turning back on the modern world, but a clear-eyed, unsentimental pursuit of durable values and pertinent atavistic wisdom. It is the method of a compassionate researcher who knows that much of the truth of an individual and his group lies locked in his antecedents and must be dredged up for the sake of the total truth. So his answers are neither pat nor necessarily flattering to his subject.

The past, like the present, is ridden with guilt and evil, individual as well as communal, but it also yields a residue of good. Long centuries of oppression have forced the Bosnian character to grow like a stubborn plant in one of the country's mountain passes, close to the ground and bending with the wind. But there is also a hard core of patrimony that shows through, a hardy perennial undergrowth which no wars, tyranny, or brutalities could trample out of existence. In that patrimony, heroism, nobility, and greatness of heart exist side by side with moral turpitude and coarseness. Enduring values are handed down through generations and become a distinctive heritage. And all of it together, in Andrić's special amalgam of storytelling and large-scale canvas, makes for powerful, often shocking, but always fascinating and engrossing reading. (pp. vii-viii)

Joseph Hitrec, "Translator's Note," in Bosnian Chronicle by Ivo Andrić (copyright © 1963 by Alfred A. Knopf; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1963, pp. v-viii.

[The] main theme in all three novels [of Andrić's 'Bosnian Trilogy'] is human isolation. For Andrić man, set against the vast panorama of history, is insignificant—fearful of external disaster and inwardly aware of his own insecurity in a world where everything is ephemeral, however much he may long for constancy. The particular history of old Turkish Bosnia, with its despotism and violence, thus portrays the broader theme of man's tragic struggle against the oncoming darkness of change and death. Against this Andrić sets man's creativity, as in the Muslim view of the symbolic meaning of that bridge on the Drina, which sees it as a work of lasting beauty, bridging the gulf of change. And it is because she resolutely suppresses love, creativity and spiritual awareness in her relentless pursuit of purely material wealth that Raika, the woman from Sarajevo who lived in lonely isolation in Belgrade, is such a tragic figure. (p. 69)

Konstantin Bazarov, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Konstantin Bazarov 1974), November, 1974.

Before assessing the extent to which the description of Travnik Chronicle as a clash of two cultures from opposed worlds in a world which is alien to them both may be considered justifiable, it is necessary to state the ambiguity contained in this description of the novel. In the first place, the 'two cultures from opposed worlds' may be interpreted as the cultures of France and Austria, drawn into opposition through their conflicting national aspirations which eventually lead them into political, military, and diplomatic conflict and the clash recreated in the novel by the public antagonism between the [French and Austrian] consulates…. It is evident that there are two clashes from opposed worlds in Travnik Chronicle, one within the 'West', the other between the 'West' and the 'East'. These two clashes, however, should not be viewed as conflicting features of the novel since they are fundamentally associated by virtue of the fact that together they recreate the historical circumstances in which the novel is set. As such, these clashes may be considered to be historically mutually complementary. It is not necessary to argue for or against either of these clashes in order to determine which clash is the more adequate description of the novel, for they represent the two halves of an historical whole: that is, the two major aspects of the historical condition of Bosnia in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Rather, it will be more rewarding to determine the extent to which a description of Travnik Chronicle purely in terms of historical circumstances may be considered justifiable; that is, whether Travnik Chronicle may be reasonably described as the recreation of these clashes, as an historical novel in which the author lays the major emphasis upon conformity of plot and character to historical condition. Owing to the assumption, perhaps because of the novel's title, that Andrić's intention is purely the recreation of Bosnia's historical condition in the early nineteenth century, the novel has been evaluated almost entirely in terms of how accurately and truthfully Andrić has depicted this condition…. [Evaluations] of Andrić's purpose and his ability as a novelist, 'the historical novelist', are insensitive and unjust, for the recreation of historical circumstances, of the opposed worlds, and the depiction of Bosnia are not ends in themselves but the means whereby Andrić treats of more fundamental prescriptive and philosophical questions. (pp. 830-31)

The clash between the French and Austrian consulates, drawn into conflict by the interests of the governments they represent, forms a framework within which much of the subject matter of the novel is concentrated. The struggle between the consuls, Daville on the one hand and von Mitterer and eventually his successor von Paulich on the other, to win the attentions and favours of the resident vizier, their conflicting exultations at the successes of their national armies and their battle to win the support or at least the neutrality of the hostile natives of Travnik, are clashes which are waged throughout the novel. (p. 831)

'In fact, it was only the aims of their official work which differed; everything else was identical or similar'. Thus, underlying the clash from opposed worlds which determines the public conflict between the consuls, there is the level of the individual, private world in which the similarities of the two men's plights far outweigh their ostensible differences. It is evident that there is not only a clash between the public opposed worlds, but also that there is a clash between the public image and the individual world of the two consuls. Andrić shows at length how the conflict in the public world prevents a realization of the similarities which exist in the private world. These, then, are the two faces of reality in Travnik Chronicle. At the consuls' very first meeting, where their official status represents the 'two cultures from opposed worlds', Andrić exposes the dualism which will exist throughout the novel. When they meet '… only the lingering sense of duty and propriety kept them from patting each other on the shoulder, as any two sensible men might have done in their common plight'…. The public world, or historical circumstance, over which men have no control is seen clearly to condition the frustration of the individual world and no matter how pronounced the parallels in the individual world, the public image, conditioned itself by historical circumstance, will finally override them. For Andrić, the consuls are 'predestined to be rivals' (or opponents—suparnici), a fact which is all the more tragic since the reader is shown a whole array of areas in which the two men might have grown in understanding of each other. The clash between the French and Austrian consulates is, therefore, an indispensable aspect of the novel for it provides a public image to which the individual, private world may be contrasted. (p. 832)

The dichotomy between the public and the private worlds permeates much of the experience of characters in the novel who find that their public face, their official duty, is concerned with the clash of the opposed worlds of France and Austria. That Andrić is in this respect making a philosophical point about the way in which he perceives life may be illustrated by the way in which he expresses this dualism of the human world. It is no coincidence that such expressions are most frequently found in the early stages of the novel, for in this way Andrić hopes to preclude any interpretation of the novel purely in terms of the public and historical world…. Clearly Andrić sees the private personal world of men as the only means of evaluating their lives…. [The] most significant personal conflict is that between Daville and des Fossés. The lack of communication between these two Frenchmen is a particular but outstanding feature of the novel…. Daville and des Fossés have fundamentally different perceptions of the public world. Des Fossés perceives the public world which, in the context of the novel, means the clash between France and Austria, as essentially futile…. Daville believes that the public world is of significance, yet as he grows older and wearier, a gradual disillusionment sets in…. Here, then, is another clash within the novel, between, in Andrić's words, the 'two different worlds of Daville and des Fossés'. The des Fossés world of the new generation, which chose to 'live life' and was not interested in 'Daville's world of ideas', and the Daville world of romanticism and idealism. Like the clashes in the public world, these in the private world are also created ironically by Andrić, for despite the differences between them, Daville and des Fossés have much in common. (pp. 832-33)

Like the clash between the French and Austrian consulates, the clash between West and East provides the basic framework within which much of the subject matter of the novel is treated. This clash, however, leads the reader to an understanding of the frustrations of the native population of Bosnia, whereas the former clash leads the reader to an understanding of the conflicts and parallels between the 'foreigners' in Bosnia. The clash between West and East, between Christian and Moslem, is expressed most philosophically by the inhabitants of Travnik, who have been subjected to the battle between the Christian and the Moslem worlds since the fourteenth century. Thus, it is Cologna, 'who dresses in a weird assortment of Turkish and European garments', symbolizing Bosnia crucified between East and West, who tells des Fossés of the meaning and significance of the historical conflict between the East and the West for Bosnia…. Cologna is a man who perceives the damage and the futility of the clash of opposed worlds, the man who 'amazes' des Fossés and who, by the end of the next chapter (Sixteen), is dead…. In the narrative we can see the brilliance of Andrić's use of circumstantial irony: the man who is best equipped to heal the split between West and East (symbolized by his conversation with des Fossés and by his clothing and willingness to change faiths in order to protect human life) and between the French and the Austrians (symbolized by Daville's use of him to convey the letter which will bring the consulates back into communication with each other) has his own life cut short by the public, historical opposition of worlds. (p. 834)

Andrić presents the major character of Mehmed Pasha's entourage, Tahir Beg, to form yet another parallel between the Residency and the consulates. Tahir Beg is 'the brains' of the Residency, just as in many respects d'Avenat and de Rotta are in a sense 'the brains' of the French and Austrian consulates respectively. Furthermore, Tahir Beg suffers from a permanent wound on his left side 'which closed and re-opened several times a year', and it is known that de Rotta is hunchbacked. All three men, Tahir Beg, d'Avenat, and de Rotta have obscure or questionable origins. There are, thus, parallels between the West and the East in the individual world established by Andrić's symbolic use of physical degeneration to indicate mental decay. The climax of the author's use of physical abnormalities to convey mental perversion is reached at an official, public meeting of the vizier with the two consuls and the Begs when 'a great heap of severed human ears and noses began to grow on the mat—an indescribable heap of wretched human flesh, salted and blackened by its own dried blood'…. Andrić uses this scene also to convey the split between the public and the private worlds. (pp. 835-36)

Andrić's emphasis lies with the consequences of the clashes caused by historical circumstances rather than with historical facts proper. Through a consideration of the way in which the opposed worlds and historical circumstances condition all men's lives, Andrić makes philosophical suggestions about all humanity within a framework which is necessarily realistic, set at a specific time in history. Philosophical and prescriptive arguments in scientific dissertations make only philosophical and prescriptive points, but philosophical suggestions within a realistic context, showing how these points are arrived at in human terms, make pointers for the whole of humanity. This is the basis of Andrić's talent…. [Although] insufficient as a description of the novel, 'the clash of cultures from opposed worlds' and historical circumstances is an indispensable aspect of Travnik Chronicle, for without it, Andrić has no realistic context and thus no grounds for argument. We may not agree with Andrić's opinion that men have little control over their public lives and the circumstances which condition their activity, but in Travnik Chronicle Andrić is consistent in every intricate detail which stems from such a belief. It is this fact which makes the novel frighteningly convincing, as the implications concern all humanity, East or West, French or Austrian. That all we truly have, 'the final tally of good and evil in our existence' stems from our own isolated individual and personal world is made crystal clear throughout the narrative. (p. 836)

Von Mitterer, the Austrian consul, is replaced by the younger von Paulich. The characterization of this man provides a useful clue to Andrić's attitude towards the public world, and thus towards the novel itself. Von Paulich's voice is dry and factual. He functions like a disinterested higher spirit or like unfeeling Nature herself. 'That whole, unusually handsome man moved and lived as though in some cold armour, behind which all trace of personal life or human weaknesses and needs was lost'…. He is representative of the automaton, utilized to work in the official capacity of Austrian consul. Implicitly von Paulich has no personal life, no individual or private world; he is utterly without emotion. He is, for this reason, the man best equipped to cope with the public world and the author senses that by creating such a character he is in no danger of the reader sympathizing with his character and thus indirectly with the public historical world which is the root of the frustration in human life, the barrier which prevents human beings from coming to an understanding of each other.

At the opposite extreme, Andrić portrays a man who has no significant public life, a monk who is characterized entirely in terms of his 'private, individual world', Fra Luka…. Fra Luka is, however, a pitiful eccentric who wastes time chasing mice and spends his whole life in the adventures of self-will. He is also the only character in the novel who could be called 'happy' in all senses of the word. Andrić's implication is that in order to discover real happiness, humanity has to cut itself off from the public world over which it has no control. (p. 837)

No matter whether East or West, French, Austrian, or Turkish, all the 'roads' for Andrić are essentially the same. From this, implications for all humanity can be drawn, as Daville attempts to do in the latter states of the novel. His words are not about 'opposed worlds' or 'alien lands', they are about the 'common course of all humanity'; its fundamental similarities rather than its superficial differences.

And playing over this humble, mechanical chore was a vague but obstinate thought, like a recurring tune: that somewhere out there the 'right road', the one he had sought all his life in vain, must nevertheless exist. And not only did it exist, but sooner or later someone was bound to stumble on it and throw it open to all men. He himself had no idea how, when or where, but it was sure to be found sometime, perhaps in his children's time, or by his children's children, or by a generation yet to come….

This then is our consolation, for Daville 'the soundless inward melody that lightens his work'. (p. 838)

Alan Ferguson, "Public and Private Worlds in 'Travnik Chronicle'," in Modern Language Review, October, 1975, pp. 830-38.