Ivo Andric — The Bridge on the Drina (1945)
Setting: Ottoman & Habsburg Bosnia
What’s it about: A Bosnian town under centuries of Ottoman rule. It is detailed and layered without being tiresome. Every new era introduces a new cast of memorable scenes and characters.
The bridge is basically a metaphor for the Ottoman Empire itself, at once dividing and unifying people.
The bridge is built by a Grand Vizier who suffers a personal separation, and with a desire to unify both community. The evocative scenes of the building of the bridge over many years again is both redemptive and violent.
Once built the bridge is a meeting place where different parts of the community mingle, but also a place where brutal, graphically-described punishments are meted out. But it ends up as a balanced picture of the pros and cons of Ottoman Balkans.
When the Habsburg Empire captures the town, it becomes a microcosm for a whole society changing hands:
“everywhere and for everyone there was fear. The entering Austrians feared an ambush. The Turks feared the Austrians. The Serbs feared both Austrians and Turks. The Jews feared everything and everyone since, especially in times of war, everyone was stronger than they.”
Andric wants to show how lives and customs go on through periods of change, but also shows the lives changing like the seasons, like when the leaders of the community wait on the bridge for the new rulers to arrive:
“So they sat on the kapia [the middle of the bridge] as they had once done when they were young and carefree and like the rest of the young people wasted their time there. Only now they were all advanced in years…They looked at one another closely and long in the fierce summer sun, and each seemed to the others grown old for his years and worn out. Each of them remembered the others as they had been in youth or child- hood, when they had grown up on this bridge, each in his own generation, green wood of which no one could tell what would be.”
The definitive Bosnian book? There is quite some controversy here, but that aside, lets just call it a Balkan epic novel. See also The Fortress by Mesa Selimovic.
You’ll like this if you liked: Orhan Pamuk