Book Review: The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andrić

Yugoslavian author Ivo Andrić is celebrated at the National Library in Vienna on the 50th anniversary of his Nobel Prize for Literature.

Novelist-diplomat Ivo Andric, photographed here in his study in the 1960s | Photo: Friedrich/Interfoto

Where Human Needs Cross

In Yugoslavian literature, there have been few authors who drew the people so precisely yet remained so reluctant to choose sides as Ivo Andrić, the man who in 1961 won a Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel Na Drini Cuprija (The Bridge on the Drina).

“From everything that man erects and builds in his urge for living, nothing is in my eyes better and more valuable than bridges,” Andrić wrote. “They are more important than houses, more sacred than shrines. Belonging to everyone and being equal to everyone, useful, always built with a sense, on the spot where most human needs cross, they are more durable than other buildings and they do not serve for anything secret or bad.”

In his novels Andrić contrasts human nature, ever changing, to the resilience of architectural marvels. Human beings are captured in time, their destinies tied to their surroundings and traditions, between good and evil. Andrić revives past events as a reminder “that human lives, as well as social and historical phenomena, can be explained at least partially by their origin, that the past, owing to archetypical patterns, is a special prefiguration of the future,” as described by Serbian literary critic Petar Dzadzic in 1983.

In Andrić novels there is no black and white; moral choices are blurred, as no decision is wholly satisfying. His characters are torn and yearn for neutrality, which only bridges might one day catch hold of.

Celebrated at the National Library in Vienna 10 Oct. on the 50th anniversary of Andrić’s Nobel Prize for Literature, these ideas feel suddenly very timely again.  Beginning Andric ’s own story is one of tension and reconciliation with complex cultural origins: Born in Bosnia of Croatian parents, he was part of a radical “Young Bosnians” movement, active in terrorist plots against the Austrian government. When one of their group, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Andrić was imprisoned as a co-conspirator. There he read Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard and began to write.

After the war, his studies in philosophy and Slavic literature took him to Zagreb, Vienna and Kraków.  He joined the Foreign Service for the interwar Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and completed his doctorate while posted in Graz from 1923 to 1924.

These many influences shaped his early writing. In one famous story, The Devil’s Yard (Prokleta Avlija), a group of inmates in a brutal Turkish prison create another reality through the telling of stories. The writing is “vivid, intensely suggestive and often disturbing,” writes critic Celia Hawkesworth, drawing on “legend, myths, archetype and symbol, to reveal universal patterns of behavior.”

Whereever he was, Andrić returned to Bosnia again and again in his writing; it was here that he had “experienced most clearly the destructive power of the arbitrary divisions between people and their potential for violent conflict,” Hawkesworth wrote, often in the name of distant ideas.

“Bosnia is a country of hatred,” Andrić wrote in 1920. There, too, is “much kindness and passionate love, profound feelings, so much hunger for justice. Yet beneath all that, in inconspicuous depths, a tempest of hatred is hidden, hurricanes compactly comprised of hatred that grow, awaiting their time.”

While he had no illusions about the human capacity for evil, he also believed that a mixed society could be the soil for conciliation and cooperation, if political ambition is held at bay.

Andrić first published a collection of poetry, Ex Ponto, in 1918. These poems have been described by diplomat Milos Crnjanski, a leading novelist and poet of the expressionist wing of Serbian modernism.

“Writing in agony and ashamed of his tears, Andrić brings the disposition of our Slavic soul to lyric poetry,” Crnjanski wrote. “These observations that are poems, seem to hold the beginning of a new history of our soul.”

Posted to Berlin in 1939, Andrić returned to occupied Belgrade in 1941. In the silence of a tiny rented room, he then wrote his best-known novels Travnicka Hronika (Bosnian Chronicle), Na Drini Cuprija (The Bridge on the Drina), and Gospodjica (Das Fraulein, in German only). Readings from these last two works, closed the evening.

Altogether it is a richly textured portrait of Slavic tradition that is woven through Andrić’s writing, the oriental embroidered with the culture of the Empire, a blending of religious, intellectual and folkloric elements, of myth and magic, violence, humor and deep humanity. And perhaps most of all, the human love of a good story. ÷


With additional research by Ana Boskovic   


The Bridge on the Drina
by Ivo Andrić
University of Chicago Press (1977)
available at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2, (01) 535 5053

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