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Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Bridge on the Drina

For once neither of my usual trilingual fare but a Yugoslav (Bosnian?) author writing in Serbo-Croat. Ironically, he is nonetheless comparable to my most recent trend of Habsburgian authors reflecting on the disappearance of the country of their youth (Ernst Weiss, Joseph Roth). Except that he is completely different of course. I hope this beginning has been sufficiently confusing by now. Ivo Andrić is an author (and diplomat before that) born in Bosnia who spent his formative years in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, getting his PhD in Graz for example. Yet, as a Yugoslav nationalist, he is imprisoned during the First World War by the Austrians (or Hungarians or, most fitting, simply the army). Thus, while he was in way shaped by the same forces which affected the aforementioned German-language, he drew almost the opposite conclusions from them. His writing does not reflect a longing for a glorious (glorified?) past, but rather a potential such future even while coupled with a loss of identity which occurred earlier (namely, the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans).

In The Bridge on the Drina Andrić recounts the history of a bridge which the Ottomans had built near Višegrad crossing the Drina and the fate of the accompanying town. Said town is populated by Christians, Muslims, and Jews; Serbs and Turks; Askhenazi and Sephardim. With the withdrawal of the Ottoman forces, the Austrians and Hungarians move in as well. Even an Italian makes his living there. Yet, Andrić gives a hard to read tableau of this truly European melange. His groups live next to one another, not with each other, they rarely intermingle, try to hold on to their customs in the face of change, and fail even at that.

This is a book hard to judge, even harder to describe. Literary speaking I was not enamored with Andrić's writing (or the translation thereof). There is no story which the reader latches onto, not even many recurring characters. Rather the novel at times seems like literary equivalent of a documentary. Never trying to excite or to truly captivate the reader, but to inform him, to give him an understanding of the Babel that Bosnia was (and is?). It is not an easy book to enter into, but one that slowly grows on one and rewards the obstinate reader at the end.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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