Friday, January 27, 2012

One From The Stacks: The Bridge on the Drina

“Of all the things that life drives man to shape and build, none, I think, is as precious as bridges . . . They serve no arcane or evil purpose.” - Ivo Andrić

When he drafted that sentence, Bosnian writer Ivan "Ivo" Andrić would have had no way of knowing that the object that inspired its writing -- and became the backdrop for the book that helped win him a coveted Nobel Prize for Literature – would one day run red with the blood of innocents, bearing witness to the very evil of which he absolved it.

Last week I went to see the film In The Land of Blood and Honey, Angelina Jolie's directorial debut about the Siege of Sarajevo. Shot over 42 days mostly in Hungary, Jolie relied on Bosnian and Serb cast members to tell the story of forbidden love between a Serb captain and his Muslim prisoner. The film generated significant controversy in Bosnia and was protested by both rape victims – who found the love affair between jailer and victim offensive – and ethnic Serbs – who objected to what they saw as the vilification of their national identity. I think that caught Jolie off guard a bit since both she and Brad consider themselves deeply committed to social advocacy issues and have their own multi-ethnic brood to prove it.

At one point Jolie even lost permission to film in Sarajevo; it was eventually restored but filming was nevertheless cut from ten to just three days, during which the Academy Award-winning actress ceded directorial responsibility to an assistant. I guess you can't please everyone.

I personally found the film moving and insightful, and balanced on the whole, albeit historically restrained (the Serbs, it should be noted, were the victims of their own ethnic cleansing during the First and Second World Wars at the hands of Croatian Catholics and Muslims, an injustice that is mentioned only in passing in the movie.)

Anyone whose ever met a Serb knows them to be extremely proud people – a nationality grounded in a sense of place and history. A people who stick together, for better of worse. Albanians are the same. I knew lots of Albanians when I worked in the restaurant industry and I can tell you, they have no doubt that they are the proverbial shit. Americans find this somewhat hard to understand. Not that we don't think we're the shit, but it's different. We're the shit by association, by hard work and military might, by hubris and a sense of collective entitlement, perhaps. But not by genetics. That's because we live in a new country defined by its heterogeneity; Serbia on the other hand is the grizzled old man of nations. Opinionated, coarse, boastful. Serbs will talk about the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 AD, which paved the way for centuries of Ottoman rule, like it happened yesterday; and many still sees it as a personal affront, one that has yet to be avenged. For them the war was nothing less than a crusade for payback. The Battle of Kosovo comes up briefly during the movie In the Land of Blood and Honey, in a conversation between two Serb soldiers, and it made me think of Andrić's book.

A Croat and a Catholic, Andrić was born in 1892 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had only recently changed hands from the Ottomans to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. He was raised in Višegrad on the river Drina in eastern Bosnia, which would become the setting of the book The Bridge on the Drina, and, many years later, the backdrop for bloody ethnic violence during the Bosnian civil war.

His muse, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, was completed in 1577 AD by the Ottoman court architect Mimar Sinan. It was named in honor of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, an Ottoman statesman who was brought to the court in Istanbul as part of the Devshirme program -- which is featured in the opening of Andrić's book. Under Devshirme, young Christian boys were taken from their families and forced into service of the Sultan as Janisarries – a professional military class. Andrić begins The Bridge on the Drina with a description of Mehmed Pasha's kidnapping:

“On that November day in one of those countless panniers a dark skinned boy of about ten years old from the mountain village of Sokolovici sat silent and looked about him with dry eyes. In a chilled and reddened hand he held a small curved knife with which he absent-mindedly whittled at the edges of the pannier, but at the same time looked about him. He was to remember that stony bank overgrown with spars, bare and dull grey willows, the surly ferry-man and the dry water-mill full of draughts and spiders' webs where they had to spend the night before it was possible to transport all of them across the troubled waters of the Drina over which the ravens were croaking.”

I probably read The Bridge on the Drina in a week, maybe a bit more, riding its pages across four centuries, from Mehmed Pasha's midnight ride, through the bloody Serbian revolts against Turkish despotism, the reconquest of large swaths of the Balkans by Austria Hungary, and, in the end, the sound of German boots and exploding Serb shells announcing the start of the Great War.

The book's main character, its protagonist, is the bridge itself, sturdily observing generations of peasants and traveling nobles, conniving officials, soldiers and bandits, while reclining figures lounged upon its kapia drinking Turkish coffee from brass cups. It witnessed song and courtship, executions and betrayal, and the shouts of Muslim and Christian children playing in its shadow, because during their years of shared triumph and hardship, “Turks, Christians and Jews mingled together."

Andrić won the Nobel Prize for his body of work in 1961 and died in 1975. Two decades later Višegrad, would be the scene of some of the worst ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian civil war. Hundreds of Bosnian women were raped, and Andrić's noble bridge became a killing field as victim after victim of the Serb paramilitaries was dumped into the Drina, turning its turqouise waters crimson and its parapets oily and slick.

And as it has done for centuries, “The bridge remained as if under a death sentence, but none the less still whole and untouched between the two warring sides.”


The Bridge on the Drina (paperback)
By Ivo Andrić
Published by University of Chicago Press (1977)
Originally published in 1945 by Prosveta Publishing Co., Belgrade
Translated from Serbo Croat by Lovett F. Edwards
Introduction by William H. McNeill
Purchase date unknown; bought used; price $0.50 (price inscribed in pencil on title page)
Condition: Good (slight cover damage)

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