One of the most important and engaging novels I’ve ever read, a sprawling fictional exploration not of a specific person, or even – really – of a specific town, Andrić’s Nobel-winning masterpiece (I know how the Nobel works in reality, don’t tell me) is a novel about a bridge. What happens on it, what happens to it, and the repercussions the bridge has on those who live close to it.
The Bridge Over The Drina is about a bridge in Bosnia, near the Serbian border, and when the novel begins the ferry crossing is a major bottleneck on an international road. Because Bosnia is, at this time, a vassal state of the Ottoman empire, lots of Bosnian youths end up summoned to work in the army and the bureaucratic institutions of Istanbul. Eventually one of these homesick boys becomes Grand Vizier (like Jafar) and decides to give his homeland a bit of a kickback by investing in a major infrastructure project, i.e. the construction of a bridge over the wide Drina river, next to the village/town of Višegrad. The bridge brings prosperity to the town, not only due to the influx of workers and foreign money during the construction process, but it becomes an increasingly busy coaching stop as people opt for the simpler river crossing here, rather than risk the unpleasantness of a boat at other locations up- or downriver. With money comes power, and with power comes competition, and by diving into the shifts in power that shuddered throughout the Balkans over the centuries that followed the bridge’s construction, Andrić gives a reader a gently detached insider view of the effects of international politics and war on domestic and individual lives.
The bridge is a focal point, it is used practically as well as recreationally – there is a “kapia” (what we would now call a “viewing area”) in the middle where people sit and chat and debate and drink – depending on their Serbian, Bosnian or Turkish heritage – plum wine or rich coffee. Through snippets of the bridge’s life (#spoileralert: the bridge dies at the end) we see how society as a microcosm reflects the “bigger” changes that happen elsewhere.
This isn’t a historical novel about powerful people that erases the existence and importance of everyone who isn’t super-rich, it is instead a varied collage crafted from the experiences and fantasies and romances and fights of people from across society, over almost 400 years. We see gambling, bad marriages, good marriages, happy childhoods, torture, corruption, financial ruin, financial success… we see the effects of industrialisation, we see the effects of empires rising and falling, we see the effects of revolutions and renegades and violence, and we see the slow splintering of a once-integrated society as ethnic and/or notionally-national factions become stoked by outside interests. The rise of mass media, the increase of populism, the importance of heritage and communal respect, the withering of old rules and old ways, and how violence – ever something that humans seek to move away from – is always inevitable, must always return…
As with Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, reading a book about the highs and lows of life in Bosnia is tainted by a contemporary reader’s awareness of how much worse things got in the 1990s… Andrić describes some truly horrific acts (particularly a gruelling scene that slowly describes a man being impaled on a spike (up the arse), with the tip of the spike breaking through his rib cage, and then being left – not yet dead – in a public place to wither over 12 hours), but these are treated as exceptional, and knowingly wrong, knowingly unjustifiable. Andrić – who was a firm believer in the Yugoslavian project upon its inception (after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) – worked as a diplomat during the majority of his professional life, not becoming a full-time writer until his non-communist, non-fascist opinions left him stranded (but not assassinated!) following the events of the Second World War. Although Andrić wasn’t a communist, there is an egalitarian edge to the writing of this book that allowed him to remain lauded and acclaimed in Tito’s Yugoslavia, despite Andrić’s ties to a defunct, overthrown, political movement.
Andrić wrote little while working as a diplomat, instead he read a lot and studied a lot, earning multiple degrees in his spare time. He also, apparently, made extensive plans and notes for the novels that he wrote in later life. The Bridge Over The Drina and the many other texts he published between 1945 and 1948 established a profound literary reputation because – to judge from this one – his writing is beautiful, intelligent and human.
Maybe, though, The Bridge Over the Drina is only so fucking successful because Andrić was working on it – off and on – for over thirty years. I suppose in some ways this is a pleasing and hopeful image – the youth who feels he has a great text within him who doesn’t give up, and instead makes it to old age and gains the time and freedom to obtain the long-dreamt-of literary success. In some ways, Andrić provides an enticing counter-example to Malcolm Lowry, or a less depressing alternative. Andrić didn’t get his novels perfected until he was old, but he did manage it, and he won – deservedly, from what I’ve read – the Nobel Prize, which (at least used to be) the most important literary award in the world. Lowry managed to hone one novel to perfection, but he didn’t have the attention span to do it again: Andrić did, Andrić did.
Of course, I read this in translation, in a rather pleasant 1995 edition, translated by Lovett F. Edward in 1959. The book contains glorious descriptions of architecture, small-town politics, small village domesticity, folk tales, music, love, intellectuality, working life, agriculture, natural disasters, and all the rest of the complex words we attempt to use to describe being alive. Andrić’s novel is inventive and immersive, it is powerful, it is wide-ranging and deeply personal, even though its main character is ostensibly a bridge. But it isn’t really, is it? The main character is, of course, Bosnia as a whole, whose worst days – alas – were not yet behind it when Andrić published The Bridge Over The Drina in 1945.
I am a poet:
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