The Malta Independent 24 September 2023, Sunday
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The story of a bridge

Noel Grima Tuesday, 22 November 2022, 11:26 Last update: about 11 months ago

The Bridge on the Drina. Author: Ivo Andric. Publisher: The University of Chicago Press / 1977. Pages: 314pp

A great stone bridge built three centuries ago in the heart of the Balkans by a Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, spanning generations, nationalities and creeds, stands witness to the countless lives played out upon and around it.

From Radisav, the workman, who tries to hinder its construction and ends up impaled alive on its highest point, to the lovely Fata who throws herself from its parapet to escape a loveless marriage, to Milan, the gambler, who risks everything in one last game on the bridge with the devil as his opponent, to Fedun, the young soldier who pays for a moment's spring forgetfulness with his life - the list of people impacted by the events surrounding the bridge is long and varied.

Over and above the individuals and their complicated lives this is the story of the complications of the Balkans, which persist till today and will persist in the foreseeable future.

At the beginning of the book the prevalent civilization in the area, where the bridge was built, was predominantly Ottoman, mainly Turkish and Muslim though it also embraced Christian and Jewish communities together with some outlaw elements such as gypsies.

The predominant Turkish tradition was a conscious rival of both Orthodox Russia and the civilization of western Europe. The book ends with the advent of the Austrian army and the Catholic tradition.

This is more or less the history of Bosnia, the mountainous region in the central part of what used to be the Yugoslav state.

In the Middle Ages it broke away from the Kingdom of Serbia and thereafter became more or less independent despite its borderline position between Orthodox and Latin Christianity.

In the 12th century, the ruler of Bosnia sought to assert a fuller independence by becoming a Bogomil, a religion related to Manichaeism that spread to Western Europe where it was called Albigensianism. Many Bosnians followed the example of their ruler even though they were considered as heretics by their Christian neighbours.

When the Turks conquered Bosnia between 1386 and 1463 nearly all of the Bogomils became Muslims. Bosnia thus became an outpost of Ottoman civilization until the Austrians came in as described in the book.

Ever since the Turkish conquest, Bosnian society had comprised a complex intermingling of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. As long as Turkish power remained secure, local Muslim dominance was assured but as the Ottoman power decreased and the might of adjacent Christian empires increased, the religious divisions of the Bosnian society became potentially explosive.

This became tragically real in our times, in the 1990s war, but it had been long coming.

It was mirrored in the complex and contradictory character of the author of this book. Ivo Andric was born in Bosnia in 1892 and spent the first two years in Sarajevo and after the death of his father the family moved to Visegrad, the scene of the book. The family was Orthodox Christian, that is, Serb. The young Andric moved back to Sarajevo for his secondary school and that is when he became a nationalist revolutionary. One of his closest friends was Gavrilo Princip, who with his murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife unleashed World War I. The events in that remote corner henceforth extended well beyond the narrow borders.

After his university years Andric entered the Yugoslav diplomatic service and at the outbreak of World War II was the Yugoslav ambassador to Berlin. During the war he lived in retirement in Belgrade which was when he wrote his famous trilogy of which this book is only a part. The other two books are Gospođica (The Woman from Sarajevo) and Bosnian Chronicle.

It was for the trilogy and especially this book that Andric won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.

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