Great Books: Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the River Drina

The 1945 novel presents the ancient bridge as a metaphor for Bosnia’s suffering, its fragility and the country’s role as a link between the East and the West.

The Mehmed Paša Bridge over the river Drina, Visegrad. Credit: Sirio Carnevalino / Alamy Stock Photo
The Mehmed Paša Bridge over the river Drina, Visegrad. Credit: Sirio Carnevalino / Alamy Stock Photo

The clock is ticking for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then again, it has been for the past twenty-seven years since the Dayton Agreements were signed in December 1995, putting an end to the worst armed conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War. In recent months observers of the Balkans have watched with bemusement, then growing anxiety as the ethnic Serbian entity of the state, the Republica Srbska (RS), first threatened to secede from various federal institutions and then voted to do so.

As a state, Bosnia is held together by a thread; it is only the peace accords and constitution agreed at the Dayton air force base in Ohio in 1995 that keep the polity intact. It manages this by some of the most impressive – and impractical – legislative gymnastics ever conceived, which, though critical in ending a war of shocking brutality, have done little more than preserve the conflict in suspended animation.

This is not, despite what is often suggested, simply the way it has always been. Indeed a great part of the tragedy of Bosnia is that the nationalist turn of the 1990s marks a clear break from the country’s cultural heritage. Prior to the wars Bosnia was regarded as one of the great examples of multiculturalism and tolerance, as the streets of Sarajevo still attest: mosque and church, both Orthodox and Catholic, compete for space, traces of the myriad histories that have been written in the city.

A narrow thread of a kind also binds Visegrad together, the town which is memorialised in Yugoslav author Ivo Andric’s Bridge on the River Drina (1945), Bosnia’s most famous novel. The work’s central figure is the eponymous bridge, built by the Ottomans in the sixteenth century as part of their yearly campaigning into the heart of Europe. In this bridge Andric has his symbol for Bosnia itself: the very thing which brings together the book’s Christians and Muslims into one community is that which at the same time stands as a perpetual monument to their difference. It, like Dayton, is a thin thread holding everything together; the consequences of its destruction are clear, but the threat still abides.

Over the course of Andric’s chronicle, spanning 400 years, the fortune of this small town is shaped by the vicissitudes of European history. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Balkans were the key site of competition between the Ottoman empire, then starting its decline, and the Austrian Habsburg empire, and throughout the novel the town and bridge change hands several times. Likewise, with the onset of the nineteenth century Visegrad bears witness to the first stirrings of nationalist sentiment in the region, as the Serbian uprisings begin to touch the town and its inhabitants. With Serbia’s independence from the Ottomans in 1878 the town (like the rest of Bosnia) falls under a new Habsburg protectorate, which holds – if only just – until the continent stumbles into the bloodshed of the First World War.

Despite the turbulence of history, however, the work returns time and again to the image of the bridge, standing sentinel over the waters of the Drina: ‘It seemed that the white and ancient bridge, across which men had passed for three centuries, remained unchanged without trace or mark under the “new Emperor” and that it would triumph over this flood of change and innovation even as it had always triumphed over the greatest floods’. While the bridge remains intact, life in the town continues as it always has; history, it seems, is a phenomenon that occurs somewhere far away, the ripples of which are gradually incorporated into the flow of life itself. The work’s plot clarifies this point: instead of a connected narrative, Andric relates a series of vignettes about life in the town. Characters are introduced, have their brief moment in the sun, and are swiftly disposed of, washed away by the flow of time.

Andric himself was a witness to history. Born when Bosnia was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, he spent much of his earlier career working as a diplomat for the nascent Kingdom of Yugoslavia, culminating with an appointment to the role of ambassador to Germany on the eve of the Second World War. In the aftermath of that conflict, Yugoslavia was transformed into a Communist entity under Josef Tito, with Andric continuing his career in public life, this time in several cultural postings.

In this period his novels, especially Bridge on the River Drina, were hailed by the Yugoslav Communist authorities, and indeed scholars have often interpreted the bridge as an image for Yugoslavia itself, a link between the east and the west. When Andric won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961, he was introduced thus by the Academy: ‘You have yourself fought for their freedom and right to live their own life. Just as the bridge on the Drina brought East and West together, so your work has acted as a link, combining the culture of your country with that of other parts of our planet, a task, well worthy of a diplomat, who is also a great author.’

Despite this, Andric and his novel’s legacy have been divisive. For some, the book is not a vision of peaceful coexistence but an expression of Christian Slavic superiority, which has been heavily criticised for its depiction of the Ottoman Turks. For his own part Andric in later life declared himself a Serb, a move that saw his works blacklisted by Croatian president Franco Tudjman in the 1990s. Almost inevitably he has subsequently been co-opted by the forces of Serbian nationalism; Palme d’Or winner Emir Kusturica has even built a model town, Andricgrad, beside the Visegrad bridge, a tourist attraction opened by none other than the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik on the centenary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by the Serbian radical Gavrilo Princip in 1914.

In the 1990s Visegrad was the site of some of the war’s worst atrocities. At least 1,661 Bosniaks were killed there, 200 of which were thrown from the bridge itself. Before the conflict some 63 per cent of the town’s residents were Bosniak, but only a handful have returned. It is a microcosm of everything the country has suffered, and even now should serve as a reminder of all that is at stake in Bosnia.

To read the novel as a monument to Serb nationalism, as Andricgrad suggests, is taking a step too far. It is not a work that celebrates ethno-nationalism. Rather, it shows just how fragile the things that connect us really are and warns us that there are those that would rather see such things broken. In its greatest set piece, a Christian named Radislav attempts to sabotage the building of the bridge and finds himself impaled on a stake by the Ottomans as a result. His body, split in two by the stake, is left strung up above the bridge as a warning to the rest of the townsfolk. It serves as an alternative, but equally potent symbol for Bosnia itself: rent in half by unspeakable violence, barely hanging together as the world watches on.

Author

Edward Thicknesse