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The Bridge on the Drina (Phoenix Fiction)

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Ivo Andric

The Bridge on the Drina is a vivid depiction of the suffering history has imposed upon the people of Bosnia from the late 16th century to the beginning of World War I. As we seek to make sense of the current nightmare in this region, this remarkable, … see full wiki

Tags: Books
Author: Ivo Andric
Genre: Literature & Fiction
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press
1 review about The Bridge on the Drina (Phoenix Fiction)

Water and Stone: the Biography of a Bridge

  • Jul 20, 2009
Ivo Andric's stately architectonic prose spans the five-century history of Visegrad, in Bosnia, as imperturbably as the Ottoman stone bridge that centered the economic, political, and social life of the town. The bridge, as told with thorough historicity, was built as a 'gift' to the region by Mohammed Söküllü, a janissary taken from a Serbian peasant family who rose by natural ability to become the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire in the mid 16th Century. Life in Visegrad, with its uneasy blend of Muslims, Christians and Jews, flows under the bridge as steadily as time, now a turbid torrent now a turgid trickle but like Time itself always toward the sea of forgetfulness. Incidents of passion, violence, cruelty, and comedy occur and recur on the 'kapia' - the broad center of the bridge - leaving their imprint in folk songs and lurking fears. Andric writes: ""So, on the kapia, between the skies, the river and the hills, generation after generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. They entered there into the unconscious philosophy of the town; that life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it endured 'like the bridge on the Drina'.""

That enduring phlegmatic balance, that provincial tranquillity, would last even through the decadence of Ottoman authority and the incorporation of Bosnia into another multi-cultural empire - Austria-Hungary - but it would meet its destruction with the intrusion of modernity, nationalism, and World War 1. The bridge itself would be mined and demolished in the War. Though Ivo Andric depicts the exploitation and tyranny of the Ottomans, then the crass invasive bureaucracy of the Austrians, with caustic realism, it's plain that he pines for the old days and old ways, that his vision of history is utterly conservative and nostalgic.

What's remarkably fine about this measured history is Andric's ability to share insights into the mentalities of all parties, Muslims and Jews as respectfully as Christian, rich and poor, successes and failures, those who adapt and those who don't. Like the bridge that resounds to the footsteps of all with equanimity and carries all traffic licit or illicit impartially, Andric depicts the virtuous and the wicked with open affection for their humanity. A barely-fictionalized biography of a stone bridge, 314 pages of small print, might sound like a challenge to any reader's attention span, but Andric makes it both emotionally affecting and historically enlightening. No other book, I think, can evoke the distinct realities of Balkan history, or elucidate the psychology of the post-Yugoslav calamities as vividly as this one.

For once, I urge readers not to skip the introduction by William McNeill, which outlines Bosnian history with helpful brevity. I wonder also at the authority of this translation by Lovett Edwards. It reads gracefully enough in English, but there are loopholes in it, as noted by some earlier reviewers. The biggest loophole is the identification of the Muslims of Visegrad as "Turks". Ethnic Turks they certainly were not. Rather they were the descendants of Slavic converts to Islam, chiefly from among the heretic Bogomil Christians. Since I can't read Serbo-Croatian, I'm uncertain whether Andric intended us to accept that the converts identified themselves as Turks or whether the translator simply brushed the issue aside. It is an important distinction, made important by the violence of ethnic and religious "cleansing" in the Bosnia of the 21st Century.

Chiefly it's the author's love of the place and the people - stone and water, permanence and transience - that make "The Bridge on the Drina" a beautiful reading experience.

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