The Bridge Over the Drina has long been a favourite of mine and one that I’ve been meaning to re-read for quite a while now. So when Stu at WinstonsDad’s Blog decided to host a Eastern European Lit Month I decided to use that as an excuse to re-read it.
The Bridge Over the Drina was written during the Second World War and published in 1945 as Na Drini cuprija. The whole book takes place on and around the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge which is in the city of Višegrad in Bosnia. The book spans the period from the building of the bridge in the 16th Century up to the First World War. My edition was published in 1994 and I originally read it in either 1994 or 1995 when the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was still in progress. One of the reasons that I liked the book was that it helped me understand the war that was being fought at the time. It helped me understand why the fighting was going on and why there were so many different religions and nationalities in such a small area. In the introduction to my edition William H. McNeill states that ‘No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists…’
Although the story can get a little confusing at times, especially when it jumps forward in time, only a minimal amount of prior historical knowledge is needed before reading it and this is supplied in the introduction: Bosnia was conquered by the Turks between 1386 and 1463 and became part of the Ottomon Empire. There followed many conversions to Islam after this period and only Muslims could hold important positions. However, Bosnia also comprised of Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews. Bosnia & Herzegovina was placed under an Austrian protectorate in 1878 and was annexed by Austria in 1908. There were by this time rising nationalist interests just to complicate things further.
After a short descriptive chapter the book goes back to a time before the bridge existed and Andrić explains when the idea for the bridge originated:
The first idea of the bridge, which was destined to be realized, flashed, at first naturally confused and foggy, across the imagination of a ten year old boy from the nearby village of Sokolovići, one morning in 1516 when he was being taken along the road from his village to far-off, shining and terrible Stambul.
The ten year old boy was destined to become the Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović and to order the building of the bridge over the Drina.
The book really kicks off when Abidaga arrives with a team of people in order to start building the bridge. Abidaga has a reputation for being ‘harsh and pitliess beyond measure’ and he soon shows that the reputation is well-earned. The local workers are treated like slaves by Abidaga and the whole town is held responsible for any damage that occurs to the bridgeworks. After three years of this virtual slavery a small band of townsmen decide to sabotage the bridge at night. When the sabotage starts to hinder the work Abidaga puts intense pressure on his subordinate to discover the saboteurs. They eventually catch Radisav and we then get to witness some gruesome tortures as Radisav has red hot chains wrapped around him and his toenails pulled out. But Radisav does not reveal any more information so Abidaga decides to have him impaled alive so that the whole town can see what happens to saboteurs. The gypsy, who is given the task of impaling Radisav, is told he will get paid more the longer that Radisav stays alive. This is grisly stuff:
At every second blow the gipsy went over to the stretched-out body and leant over it to see whether the stake was going in the right direction and when he had satisfied himself that it had not touched any of the more important internal organs, he returned and went on with his work.
When Radisav finally dies Abidaga tells his subordinates to throw the corpse to the dogs. Some local Christians however manage to bribe the gypsy to let them have the body so that they can give Radisav a decent burial.
After a winter break in the construction of the bridge it is discovered that Abidaga had been embezzling funds and had since been banished from the Empire. The construction work was now supervised by Arif Beg who was a totally different man than Abidaga and he gets the townspeople on his side and completes the bridge. Once completed, Arif Beg calls for a great feast to celebrate. Not long after the completion of the bridge the Grand Vezier, Mehmed Pasha, is assassinated.
With each chapter the narrative jumps forward, sometimes a hundred years, sometimes just a few years and we experience these little vignettes of the lives of the inhabitants of Višegrad with the bridge at the centre of it all. There is a great flood that covers the whole of the bridge, there are revolts and conflicts, there’s the tale of Fata and Nail, where Fata commits suicide from the bridge on her wedding day rather than marry her husband-to-be.
About two-thirds of the book covers the period from the Austrian protectorate in 1878 up until the First World War and there’s a bit more continuity between the chapters as we come across the same characters or relations of earlier characters. The Austrians now classify, monitor and improve many aspects of the city which many of the older inhabitants find amusing. The city gets a railway link, a water supply and repairs are made to the bridge. The Austrians always seem to be busy. Hotels and brothels appear and there’s money to be made.
The novel ends in the year 1914. Andrić calls it that ‘strange year’ as he describes how it started well but was to end so badly:
The summer of 1914 will remain in the memory of those who lived through it as the most beautiful summer they ever remembered, for in their consciousness it shone and flamed over a gigantic and dark horizon of suffering and misfortune which stretched into infinity.
News of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife interrupts a Serbian celebration and from that day things have changed for good. Everyone has to decide what to do as the city splinters along religious and ethnic lines; some of the young Serbians flee to Serbia, the Turks have to decide whether to fight with Austria or not, people are hanged as spies, others are lynched. Meanwhile the fighting gets closer and closer to Višegrad and the bridge.
If you’ve never read this book then I thoroughly recommend finding a copy and reading it. I always have a bit of a thing for books (and films) that span large time periods but this is especially good. I would have preferred it if Andrić had included more material during the Ottoman Empire as he seems to be in a rush to get to the more modern period, but hey, this was no doubt where his main interest lay.
As a final note: My copy, which is only twenty years old, has an amazing amount of deterioration – see picture. I was shocked when I pulled it out of the box it was in. It was surrounded by other books that weren’t in such a bad condition so it couldn’t just be the way it was stored. The paper does have a bit of a ‘newspaper feel’ to it but the cover also has a lot of spots on it as well. I’ve seen copies of old manuscripts that look in better condition than this book.