from the INTRODUCTION by Misha Glenny But the bridge still stood, the same as it had always been, with the eternal youth of a perfect conception, one of the great and good works of man, which do not know what it means to change and grow old and which, or so it seemed, do not share the fate of the transient things of this world.
Ivo Andrić was no run-of-the-mill Nobel laureate. He was the only individual personally acquainted with both Gavrilo Princip and Adolf Hitler, the two men whose actions triggered the First and Second World Wars respectively. One could easily adapt Andrić’s own biography into a novel as it encapsulates many of the fateful and sometimes fatal dilemmas which people from Central and South-Eastern Europe faced through much of the twentieth century.
After his death in 1975 and again following the wars in Croatia and Bosnia which finally ended in 1995, literary critics and writers from Andrić’s home country have engaged in intense discussion about the writer’s literary merits. Contributions to this debate range from the obsequious to the vitriolic. Throw in equally serious reflections about linguistic, political and cultural identity and this discussion becomes hard to understand for those without a decent grasp of the politics and culture of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, not to mention the former Yugoslavia in both its royalist and communist variants. The issue is complicated still further because none of the five countries which Andrić might have called his ‘home country’ exists any more (the last one collapsed in 1991).
Ivo Andrić was born in 1892 in Travnik. This town built into the hills of central Bosnia not far from Mount Vlašić, now a popular tourist destination, commands little attention outside the country. Nonetheless, it played an important part in the country’s history because from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, it was the capital of the Ottoman province of Bosnia and seat of the administrative rulers, the viziers. As a consequence for such a small settlement it has an unusual array of architectural riches, some of whose foundations stretch back to the fifteenth century. Both Andrić's parents were Catholics, which in the context of Bosnia meant they were Croats. Travnik was a mixed town, consisting mainly of Catholics and Muslims, whom Andrić usually refers to as Turks in his writing even though the great majority were actually Slavs who had converted to Islam, along with smaller communities of Orthodox Serbs and Sephardic Jews. Andrić never disguised his Croat origins but many years later when he moved to Belgrade, he designated himself a Serb, albeit with no confessional affiliation.
He was born a subject of the Ottoman Empire but in a province which the Sultan in Istanbul, Abdülhamid II, controlled only in name. In 1878, fourteen years before Andrić’s birth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had secured the right to occupy Bosnia and Herzegovina as a result of decisions taken at the Congress of Berlin. The Sultan may still have ruled in name but Kaiser Franz Joseph I was now its de facto
ruler. Vienna’s subsequent decision to annex the two provinces in 1908, stripping the Sultan of his nominal suzerainty, was a key moment in the events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.
Andrić recognizes this great symbolic break. ‘The year 1908,’ he wrote in The Bridge on the Drina
, ‘brought with it great uneasiness and a sort of obscure threat which thenceforward never ceased to weigh upon the town.’ Yet for Andrić Habsburg rule had already had a profound impact on Bosnia, especially on its economic and social life.
In fact this had begun much earlier, about the time of the building of the railway line and the first years of the new century. With the rise in prices and the incomprehensible but always perceptible fluctuations of government paper, dividends and exchanges, there was more and more talk of politics.
Andrić had a nuanced approach to the Austro-Hungarian occupation. He argued that it led to much needed modernization and economic renewal. His interpretation has not always found favour among critics from both Bosnia and Serbia. Yet Andrić was no slavish supporter of the Habsburgs. At key moments in the novel, he identifies future dangers which all the great power manoeuvring implied.
At the time of the original occupation in 1878, Bosnia and Herzegovina was an extremely poor and conservative region. Earlier attempts by a reformist government in Istanbul to break the power of the begs and agas, the Ottoman provincial rulers and landowners, had largely failed. Much of the Catholic, Orthodox and the nominally free Muslim peasantry lived hand to mouth. People’s circumstances in the more affluent towns were often precarious, too. Above all, the pace of life was glacial. So when in the wake of Franz Joseph’s military occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina the Habsburg Double Eagle built its nest in every town and in every village, the sudden invasion of hundreds upon hundreds of Habsburg bureaucrats had a severe psychological impact on the Muslims in particular. Men in neatly cut European uniforms brandished their ink and stamps, demanding endless information about the Empire’s new peoples; poking their noses into the private lives and habits of families whose word until a few months earlier had been more powerful in Bosnia than even the Sultan’s. Snapping orders in strange tongues, they counted houses and measured roads, or more frequently the land upon which new roads and railways would soon be built; they put up signs on buildings and signs on streets in foreign languages. They handed out letters telling young men to report for military service; they indulged in futile administrative rituals about which whole novels have been written; and everywhere they hung portraits of His Imperial and Royal Highness, Franz Joseph I.
Andrić recalls this period in The Bridge on the Drina
when Muslim elders gather (on the bridge of course) to discuss Vienna’s decision to hold a census: As always, Alihodja was the first to lose patience. ‘This does not concern the Schwabes’
* *The colloquial word for German speakers.] faith, Muderis Effendi; it concerns their interests … We cannot see today what all this means, but we shall see it in a month or two, or perhaps a year. For, as the late lamented Shemsibeg Branković used to say: “The Schwabes’ mines have long fuses!” This numbering of houses and men, or so I see it, is necessary for them because of some new tax, or else they are thinking of getting men for forced labour or for their army, or perhaps both. If you ask me what we should do, this is my opinion. We have not got the army to rise at once in revolt. That God sees and all men know. But we do not have to obey all that we are commanded. No one need remember his number nor tell his age. Let them guess when each one of us was born.
As successive Sultans had discovered in the previous hundred years, Bosnia’s Muslim landowners and administrators were very practised at passive resistance. Nonetheless, the rapid changes introduced by Vienna contributed to what a distinguished historian of Bosnia has called ‘a widespread sense of alienation and fear among Bosnian Muslims’. The psychological distress occasioned by these changes was ‘a major cause of Muslim emigration to Istanbul and other parts of the Ottoman Empire … during the era of the Double Eagle.’1
For all the imperialist disdain which the new regime evinced, Habsburg rule introduced significant investment in health, education and transport that benefited the local population. Progress, however, often fell victim to the competitive rancour between the Empire’s two governments in Vienna and Budapest who had established an unwieldy system of joint control over Bosnia.
The new circumstances benefited young Ivo. With an absent father, his hard-working mother who was barely literate dispatched her two-year-old son to her sister and brother-in-law in the eastern part of Bosnia, specifically the small town of Višegrad. Ivo’s uncle was a minor Habsburg official, meaning that the family had an income and economic security of sorts. Where Travnik’s population was predominantly Catholic or Muslim, the primarily Muslim town of Višegrad had a large Orthodox Serbian minority, especially in the surrounding villages. It was during these early years that Andrić learned the unique rhythms and vocabulary of Ottoman Bosnian together with the mythology and history of the region which he would later draw upon to fashion his great work, The Bridge on the Drina
Without wanting to overstate their advantages, the Croats were the community that probably benefited most from the Habsburg occupation. Croatia proper which bordered Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west and the north had long been integral to the Habsburg Empire and so Croats from both sides of the border were suddenly living in what was de facto
the same state. A large number of the clerks, postmen and stationmasters who were new to Bosnia had arrived from Croatia. They, of course, spoke the local language. Before long the Catholic Church had received permission to establish an archbishopric in Sarajevo, or Vrhbosna, as the Croats called it by an even older name. The growth of Croatian influence also helped young Ivo. When he finished primary school, he returned to his mother in the Bosnian capital and received a scholarship from a Croatian cultural foundation to attend the Gymnasium there. The school itself was a product of Habsburg modernization.
It was at this school that Ivo Andrić met Gavrilo Princip. If Andrić came from modest circumstances, his Serb friend, two years younger, came from a positively primitive home as described by the Serb historian, Vladimir Dedijer:
In the old house the doors are small, and so very low that you can enter the house only by bowing your head. Inside it is dark. The house has no windows; instead of floor only beaten earth. To the left from the door is a stone bench on which a wooden barrel for water was standing … Smoke went through a badza
, a hole in the roof above the open fireplace. The only light in the house came through it. 2
Together Andrić and Princip belonged to a circle of radicals called Young Bosnia. There were similar radical groups operating in several parts of Europe at the time, most with the shared aim of throwing off imperial rule and replacing it with a nation state. Young Italy and Young Russia provided a particular inspiration for the group in Sarajevo.
The ideology of Young Bosnia was inchoate at best, infused with strains of anarchism, socialism, nationalism, the Russian narodniki
’s admiration of the peasantry, and, on at least one occasion, a seasoning of Serbian Orthodox mysticism. With his typical mixture of detachment and intimacy, Andrić looked back on the arrival of this new breed of young nationalists, submerged in political passions, in sleepy Višegrad. He was, of course, looking back at his own youth:
These were a new sort of young men, educated in various cities and states and under various influences. From the great cities, from the universities and schools which they attended, these young men came back intoxicated with that feeling of proud audacity with which his first and incomplete knowledge fills a young man, and carried away by ideas about the rights of peoples to freedom and of individuals to enjoyment and dignity. With every summer vacation they brought back with them free-thinking views on social and religious questions and an enthusiastically revived nationalism which recently, especially after the Serbian victories in the Balkan wars, had grown to a universal conviction and, in many of these youths, to a fanatical desire for action and personal sacrifice.
But in Bosnia, this is where it started to get really complicated. Young Bosnia included members of all four confessions – Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Islam and Judaism – but the majority was Serb. United in their antipathy towards Habsburg rule, they were sometimes divided by different perceptions of where liberation from the Austrian overlord might lead. Yugoslavism had emerged both in Croatia and Serbia during the nineteenth century – the idea that you could unite all southern Slavs (excepting Bulgarians who already had their own state) in one country. But whereas Croatia and Bosnia were under foreign occupation, Serbia was an independent kingdom and the bulk of the Young Bosnians, who were Orthodox, i.e. Serbs, believed that Serbia would play the role that Piedmont had played in Italy.
So at the outset, different communities conceived the Yugoslav idea in different ways which would prove problematic in the future. Nonetheless, if one could argue that Ivo Andrić supported any ideology, it was Yugoslavism and it was at the Gymnasium in Sarajevo in the run-up to the First World War that he absorbed this. Fortunately for literature, he was obsessed by ideas and writing and less inclined to engage in conspiratorial activities than his schoolfriends like Princip. Andrić had long departed Sarajevo to study in Krakow, southern Poland via Zagreb and Vienna, when a conspiratorial Serbian nationalist group, the Black Hand, provided Young Bosnia with the weapons that would kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo.
Although not directly connected to the assassination, Andrić was arrested in Split on his return to Croatia and spent the next three years in Austro-Hungarian prisons, an experience which he would often visit in his writing both figuratively and literally. He had also seemingly undergone a change in his political attitude. Before the war, he had engaged in political, philosophical and literary debate. True, he was careful to couch any political messages that infused his early prose in metaphors sufficiently complex to fool the dunderheads of the Imperial censors but not the careful reader. Now, Andrić began the process of distancing his stories from contemporary political events. Furthermore, his own political engagement faded quickly. Andrić’s one steadfast commitment was to the idea of Yugoslavia and with the formation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (SHS) in December 1918 that wish was fulfilled. Never mind that the Yugoslav royal family was actually Serbian and the Croats and Slovenes would quickly tire of the centralization of political and economic power in Belgrade which characterized the first Yugoslav entity.
Despite its many faults, Andrić appeared committed to supporting this first Yugoslavia as he would the second communist version after the Second World War. In the 1920s, he secured a position in the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry and represented his country in many capitals and provincial centres from Rome, Trieste and Bucharest to Graz, Geneva and Berlin. His favourite posting was to Madrid where he was able to indulge in his boundless passion for the work of Goya. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that as a writer Andrić hoped to achieve for literature that which Goya had for art.
In an amusing satire published to acclaim in Belgrade, the author, Svetislav Basara, speculates that Andrić exploited his several chronic lung conditions (including tuberculosis) in order to advance his progress around the consuls and embassies of Europe:
As soon as Andrić complained to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of SHS about the climate at his posting, he was transferred to a place whose climate was not necessarily any better than the previous one but was nonetheless a place that Andrić was keen to visit … The history of Andrić’s illnesses is in fact a travelogue. His brilliant career left a much deeper impression on the world of clinical pathology than it did on diplomacy.2
Scurrilous and unfair though this assessment might be, it does point to a truth about Andrić. He used his natural intelligence and diligence to succeed as a diplomat while devoting his extensive spare time to writing and absorbing as much as he could about European culture and literature. During the Austrian occupation of Bosnia he taught himself German with the help of the famous small yellow paperbacks of Reclam, the publishing house which to this day produces cheap versions of German and world literature, a fact he references in The Bridge on the Drina
. But he also learned Polish, Italian, Spanish, Romanian and French and was able to read and translate from Russian and English.
These influences, along with the very specific language of his Bosnian homeland and Serbian and Croatian literary traditions, are evident throughout his writing. In some of the close descriptive passages in The Bridge on the Drina
there are echoes of The Magic Mountain
by Thomas Mann, a writer whom Andrić admired hugely. But he succeeds in blending these European traditions effortlessly with the cadences and vocabulary of the Bosnian language’s mixed heritage.
Andrić understood Bosnia as a country where East and West meet and it is surely no coincidence that the image of the bridge is probably the most persistent metaphor throughout his work. In 1925 he published his story ‘The Bridge at Žepa’ – Žepa was another small town in eastern Bosnia – which in many respects anticipates his great novel by almost two decades. Indeed, in 1933 he published an essay entitled ‘Bridges’:
In everything that man pushes by his vital instinct, builds and raises, nothing is more beautiful or more precious than bridges. Bridges are more important than houses, more sacred because they are more useful than temples. They belong to everybody and they are the same for everybody, always built in the right place in which the major part of human necessity crosses, more durable than all other constructions and they do not serve for anything secret or bad … Everywhere there is something to overcome or to bridge: disorder, death, meaninglessness. Everything is a transition, a bridge whose ends are lost in infinity, beside which all the bridges of this earth are only children’s toys, pale symbols. And all our hope lies on the other side.4
Andrić failed to convince everyone of his perception of Bosnia as a bridge between East and West but there is hope and optimism evident in his literature that is often obscured by the bleakness of much of his vision. . . .
Copyright © 2021 by Ivo Andric; Translated by Lovett F. Edwards; Introduction by Misha Glenny. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.