Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2021

The Bridge on the Drina (Bosnian Trilogy #1) by Ivo Andrić, translated by Lovett F. Edwards

Time for another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die!

The Bridge on the Drina, by Nobel Prize winning author Ivo Andrić (1892-1975), is also listed on ‘The World’s Required Reading List at TEDEd‘ compiled from books assigned to students around the world, and I’ve also seen it reviewed at the Global Literature in Libraries blog (where, in 2017, I promised to move it up the TBR where it has been waiting patiently since 2010).

As 1001 Books says, it’s more a chronicle than a novel, organised into vignettes describing the life of the local population in Bosnia and Herzegovina and its transformations over the centuries. It’s also rather a melancholy experience to read it, because the metaphor of the bridge as a symbol of coexistence, as depicted in the front cover image by Wiktor Sadowski, collapses under the weight of recent history.

(I wouldn’t be the only Australian who didn’t know where Bosnia was until the Bosnian War (1992-95) erupted.  But I learned fast.  In the 1990s I taught refugee Bosnian children who had fled dreadful experiences, and long afterwards I was still having to deal with unacceptable hostilities towards them from Serbian children in the playground.)

Mehmed-paša Sokolović (Wikipedia)

The book begins with the building of the bridge during the 16th-century Ottoman Empire, and ends with World War I, when it was partially destroyed.  For three centuries the bridge is cherished by the villagers as a gift of Mehmed-paša Sokolović, the Grand Vezir, a man who—in forced tribute to the Sultan—was taken as a boy from his Christian family, forced to convert to Islam, given a Turkish name, and served three Sultans during his lifetime.  When he rose to great power in the Sultan’s court, he sought to assuage the pain that had never left him, by building a magnificent bridge in his homeland.

The Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge over the Drina River, ca. 1900

Designed by the Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, the bridge was a marvel of engineering and until the funding for it ran out in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, it boasted a caravanserai (a roadside inn) as a focal point for drinking and gossiping.  But the building of it was fraught with tension, and Andrić does not spare the reader the violence that was used on the hapless forced labourers who built it.  Legends of children walled up inside it are remembered along with the gruesome torture and death of a man thought to be a saboteur.

Andrić’s genius lies in his brilliant juxtapositions of humanity at its best and its worst.  There is a story about a man whose high ambitions for his beautiful daughter are compromised by his own vanity.  She, unable to contemplate a marriage beneath her yet unable to defy the father she loves, throws herself off the bridge after the ceremony so that she can be true to herself and yet not humiliate him.

Peasants and shopkeepers alike, can be wily and foolish, diligent and lazy, or clever and ignorant.  They work hard and prosper, or they gamble away everything they have.  There is a great of intemperate drinking, and a general lack of enthusiasm for change.  As the years roll by, they weather new imperial ambitions culminating in the Austro-Hungarian Occupation, accommodating some impositions but struggling with others.

In truth the peasants too found it hard to grow accustomed to the railway.  They made use of it, but could not feel at ease with it and could not understand its ways and habits.  They would come down from the mountains at the first crack of dawn, reaching the town about sunrise, and by the time they reached the first shops they would begin asking everyone they met:

‘Has the machine gone?’

‘By your life and health, neighbour, it has gone long ago,’ the idle shopkeepers lied heartlessly.

‘Really gone?’

‘No matter.  There’ll be another tomorrow.’

They asked everyone without stopping for a moment, hurrying onwards and shouting at their wives and children who lagged behind.

They arrived at the station running.  One of the railwaymen reassured them and told them that they had been misinformed and there were still three good hours before the departure of the train.  Then they recovered their breath and sat down along the walls of the station buildings, took out their breakfasts, ate them, and chatted or dozed, but remained continually alert.  Whenever they heard the whistle of some goods engine they would leap to their feet and bundle up their things together, shouting:

‘Get up! Here comes the machine!’

The station official on the platform cursed them and drove them out again:

‘Didn’t I just tell you that it was more than three hours before the train comes?  What are you rushing for?  Have you taken leave of your senses?’

They went back to their old places and sat down once more, but still suspicious and distrustful. (pp. 213-4)

But though the pages flow easily through the centuries, like an evil thread, the tensions between Christians, Muslims and Jews erupt from time to time.  And the story ends with the assassination of the Crown Prince as the catalyst for the destruction of the bridge, summarised best at Wikipedia:

In June 1914, Bosnian Serb student Gavrilo Princip assassinates Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, setting off a chain of events that lead to the outbreak of World War I. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia, and the local authorities begin to incite Višegrad’s non-Serb population against the town’s Serb residents. The bridge with the old road to Sarajevo suddenly regains its importance, as the railway line is not adequate to transport all the materiel and soldiers who are preparing to attack Serbia in the autumn of 1914. Austria-Hungary’s invasion is swiftly repulsed and the Serbians advance across the Drina, prompting the Austro-Hungarians to evacuate Višegrad and destroy portions of the bridge.

The partially destroyed Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, 1915

Ivo Andrić’s Nobel Prize citation reads “for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country”, and indeed, that is just what Andrić does in this unforgettable story.

PS I forgot to say… this book was recommended to me by the late Tom Cunliffe, from A Common Reader.  Tom was a great source of recommendations and there are still books on my TBR, thanks to him.  He was also my source for books to give my late father for birthdays and Christmas, and my father, to whom the Internet remained a wondrous mystery to the end of his life, used to marvel at this unknown man who was so good at helping me to find just the right books.  Vale, Tom, you are sadly missed.

Image credit:

Author: Ivo Andrić
Title: The Bridge on the Drina
Translated by Lovett F. Edwards
Front cover image by Wiktor Sadowski, design by Joan Sommers
Introduction by William H. McNeill
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, 1977, first published 1945
ISBN: 9780226020457, pbk., 314 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from the Book Depository


Responses

  1. I have heard of this book but had no idea what it was about. It is a time of history I know nothing about except the war during our lifetime. What a varied past.

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    • It’s a wonderful book, it just seems to flow through the years like the water under the bridge, and the way he understands human nature is just beautiful to see,

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  2. Like Pam, I knew of this book and thought it was one I should read, but had no idea what it was about. Sounds marvellous, Lisa.

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  3. This is one of my favourite books ( I think I’ve even reviewed it) – I read it, along with others by Andrić, at the time of the breakup of Yuogoslavia and found it really helped me understand the conflict. It’s a great piece of literature as well.

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    • I didn’t know he’d written anything else (available in English, that is), would love to see your reviews!

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  4. I have also had a copy of this book on my shelf for many years and lately it has been catching my eye when I pass the bookcase where it rests. I must at least put it on my TBR pile.

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    • I’m starting to wonder what it was that triggered our interest in this book. I’ve marked that it was Tom Cunliffe who recommended it to me, but it seems to have had more widespread interest round about 2010 than just a couple of bloggers.

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      • I have long had an interest in literature from the Balkans/Central Europe. It goes back to high school friends from the former Yugoslavia and nurtured by Istros Books.

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        • Yes, Istros and Glagoslav are doing a great job in bringing us literature from lesser-known places in Europe.
          it’s interesting, though, that this edition is published by an American university press.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m doing a summer of 1,001 Books (hoping to read 10) and this is one I’m completely unfamiliar with. I keep meaning to read up on this region (started Black Lamb Grey Wolf more than once!). I was just a bit too young for the war in the 90s to make an impression and I feel like there’s a real gap in my knowledge…

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    • Hello Laura, it’s good to see you here:)
      Here in Australia, at least, the literary world hasn’t really offered us much from the former Yugoslavia, not until recently when small indie publishers starting doing translations from lesser-known places. And of course now #HappyDance we can get them whether booksellers stock them or not.

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  6. It’s true that one can easily overlook an entire country in Europe when one isn’t from Europe, but until recently it was considered acceptable to refer to the entire continent of Africa as though it is a single, homogeneous country, so hopefully we are making progress in recognizing that we have an entire world’s worth of literature to explore. I love the premise of the TEDEd list: thanks for that!

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