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By Ivo Andric
Translated from the Serbo-Croat by Lovett F. Edwards
With an introduction by William H. McNeill
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977 from 1959 original ISBN # 0-226-02045-2
314 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2013

From the Introduction:

The novel is set in Visegard in current Bosnia-Herzegovinian. The village is a key link between Bosnia and Serbia. The famous bridge was 250 paces long and 10 paces wide. In the center was a kapia which is twice as large as the rest of the bridge. The kapia is central to the novel. It was in the middle of the bridge, wider than the rest and where there were stone benches and such to sit on. It was a key meeting area for the people and the image of the unity of the various groups of people who lived in Visegrad.

The town was fairly much divided by religion and nationality -- Christians lived on the left bank originally and Muslims and Turks on the other side.

Bob Corbett’s overview comments:

This is an extraordinary novel, a true epic of 400 years of Bosnian history. Ivo Andric centers his story in the central eastern village of Visegrad on the Drina River. The bridge spans the river Drina and links Bosnia and Serbia making Visegrad the central transportation route from Sarajevo in central Bosnia with Serbia to the east. This bridge, village and positioning made Visegrad a successful city with a respectable economy for all living there.

Nonetheless Visegrad is like a tiny town all to itself, and until after the Austrian Occupation of 1878 the townspeople hardly even knew or cared that there was a world outside the village.

Structurally the novel is in four sections. The first part begins in 1500 and runs until the bridge is built and the economy of the village settles into place.

The second section is exceptionally brilliant. It is a long series of short chapters, each detailing some aspect of the life of some persons or group in the village. Each chapter is like a separate short story, but out of it all emerges a clear picture of the village which sees itself as the center of the world and doesn’t much know or care about the rest of the world. In the process the reader gets a profound sense of understanding this village and these people. It seems there is a unique life form which has developed in the several hundred years with the bridge and Visegrad and its inhabitants live as if this is the center of the world itself.

Those two sections – the building of the bridge and the later life it creates -- are the largest portion of the novel. The third section begins with the Austrian occupation of Bosnia (and other areas) in 1878. Soon after the Austrians took over, life in the village began to dramatically shift. Andric pictures the Austrians as exceptionally industrious and careful in their plans and developments. Little by little they recreate Visegrad, taking it away from the residents and making it over, making it part of their careful plan of eastward expansion.

The fourth section brings enormous change. It begins with the Austrian annexation of Bosnia (and other countries) and thus the citizens of Visegrad are now Austrian. This does bring dramatic change in the youth. Many are modernized, and many also go off to European universities, discover the much larger and more sophisticated world outside Visegrad and wish to enter into that world. It is the beginning of the end of the village, and is the end of Andric’s story.

With this movement comes change. Mainly the old retain their world to the end, but the young begin to change and to see life not as Visegard, but as the Austrian Empire.

Bob Corbett’s notes and comments along the way:

Mehmed Pasha Sokoli served the Ottoman Empire for 60 years and wanted to build the bridge. It took five years to build it. The actual building began in 1571. The bridge has 11 arches and still stands.

After 100+ years the Turks were driven out of Hungary. The problem then became the finances of the bridge. The bridge is actually in today’s Bosnia. Wars, changes of leadership and such constantly affected the village and the bridge; however some of the most destabilizing periods were terrible floods.

“They entered into the unconscious philosophy of the town; that life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina.’ ”

The town was only an hour’s march from the Serbian frontier. At the beginning of the 19th century there was a revolt in Serbia against the Turks. The Bosnian Turks asked for men for the army. Eventually peace came again but:

“The Turks were gratified that the revolt was now far away from them and hoped that it would be entirely extinguished and would end there where all godless and evil enterprises ended.”
. . .
“The Serbs, however, as was natural remained disillusioned and disappointed after the withdrawal of the fires on Panos but in the depth of their hearts, in that true and ultimate depth which is revealed to no one, there remained the memory of what had taken place and the consciousness that what has once been can be again; there remained too hope, a senseless hope, that great asset of the downtrodden. For those who rule and must oppress in order to rule, must work according to reason; and if, carried away by their passion or driven by an adversary, they go beyond the limits of reasonable action they start down a slippery slope and thereby reveal the commencement of their own downfall. Whereas those who are downtrodden and exploited make equal use of their reason and unreason for they are but two different kinds of arms in the continual struggle, now underground, now open, against the oppressor.”

Peace then ruled until the middle of the 19th century. However, by 1880 the Turks were being driven out of all Serbia and that included the area south and east of Visegrad. Many families came through (or settled in) Visegrad, coming from Uzice and many headed westward toward Sarajevo. When the refugees came through Visegard they warned: “You’re next.”

However the novel then takes a major turn in 1878. The Austrians took control of Sarajevo and began a move toward Visegrad. This invasion and occupation with eventual annexation would change life in Visegrad forever.

The late 19th century was a hard period with wars, pestilences and the disruptions of migrations. The Austrians simply astonished the people:

“. . . what most astonished the people of the town and filled them with wonder and distrust was not so much their numbers as their immense and incomprehensible plans, their untiring industry and the perseverance with which they proceeded to the realization of those plans. The newcomers were never at peace; and they allowed no one else to live in peace. It seemed that they were resolved with their impalpable yet ever more noticeable web of laws, regulations and orders to embrace all forms of life, men, beasts and things, and to change and alter everything, both the outward appearance of the town and the customs and habits of men from cradle to the grave.”

The Turks of Visegrad were for resistance. Some would not directly resist the Austrians, but would never accept the changes they brought. The character of Alihodja is the figure in the novel who most represents this attitude. Most of the people didn’t like it, figured there was little to nothing they could do, but that life would just go on with a bit of change. How wrong they were!

Unlike Turkish rule, the Austria occupation was much more peaceful. There was little trouble with the Austrians but the cultural misunderstands on both sides were gigantic. Once the occupation was settled the Austrians brought in many entrepreneurs and life in the town began to change. What most astonished the people was that these changes were done without force, they just DID IT. External life changed, but locals, Turks, Serbs and Bosnians alike just lived in their homes as always, but the nature of life was changing.

The novel takes a definite turn with the occupation by the Austrians. Each chapter is a short story of some one person and how he or she deals with the changes. It is a brilliant way to deal with the slow changes that gradually, but relentlessly change the nature of the town forever.

There is the bride who kills herself on her wedding day, two gamblers who ruin their lives, the story of a “streifkorp” member who is duped by a girl and is executed for his error and on and on. The reader sees the gradual changes that occur in the fundamental structure of the town.

After some four years of occupation the people begin a sort of passive resistance. They see the nature of life in the world is changing and they don’t like it. But, not knowing what else to do they begin to react. They give false information to the officials, trash signs and other “improvements” and the like. But unlike periods of Turkish occupation, in the main the Austrians just turn a blind eye to the “resistance,” and just keep on slowly making the town over in their own manner.

Little by little the changes made by the Austrians bring a relative prosperity and peace, at least “in the Franz-Joseph manner.” This was a period of great hope and nearly a utopian enthusiasm in Europe and the Austrians were bringing this world to Visegrad. It was a period:

“. . . when many Europeans thought that there was some infallible formula for realization of a centuries-old dream of full and happy development of freedom and progress . . . of comfort, security and happiness for all and everyone at reasonable prices, even if on credit terms.”

Not only were Visegrad and its people changing, but so were the Austrians. The Europeans became more Eastern and the Easterners more European. Most of the people came to believe: “The new state, with its good administrative apparatus, had succeeded in a painless manner, without brutality or commotion, to extract taxes and contributions from the local people which the Turkish authorities had extracted by crude and irrational methods or by simple plunder; and, moreover, it got as much or more, even more swiftly and surely.”

These chapters run on with life’s changes under the Austrian occupation. Each chapter in this section is sort of a short story which is quite specific to the few people who live it, but which reveal the nature of the changes brought about by the Austrians. Lotte ran a hotel and yet had a secret life as a financier of many Jewish families she was related to. Milan, a former unsuccessful gambler worked for her. These are typical stories of how folks, ordinary everyday folks, lived and changed under the occupation.

Of the town drunks we read:

“Only an insignificant minority, accursed and preordained, continued on that road forever choosing alcohol instead of life, the shortest and most deceptive illusion in this short and deceptive life; they lived for alcohol and were consumed by it.”

The central historical outcome of Visegrad is changed with the Austrians and most especially with the coming of the railroad. The railroad came into Visegrad from the west, but didn’t cross the bridge, rather it then veered south and continued its easterly route much to the south. Thus there was no longer much reason to cross the bridge except to get from one section of Visegrad to the other. For hundreds of years it had been an extremely important route between Bosnia and Serbia and on toward Turkey (to the southeast). Now there was no reason to use this famous Bridge on the Drina except to get into the tiny and relatively uninteresting east Visegrad section of town.

The novel takes a significant shift with the assassination of Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898. Up to this point it had been centered in Visegrad, first with the 300 + years from the building of the bridge to the arrival of the Austrians, then the Austrian occupation of Visegrad, and now the novel takes on the politics of both Europe and Bosnia/Serbia/Turkey and movement toward World War I.

However in this relatively peaceful occupation by the Austrians everything about life had begun to change. Even the shift of the importance of the bridge and the place of Visegrad in local trade and travel was not the most significant source of this change. It was cultural. More and more Visegrad (as the rest of the region) became more westernized and Austrian. Politics shifted and became a widespread distraction. There were calls for the 8 hour day and lots of talk of Socialism. Finally came the gigantic shift: Austria formally annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now little Visegrad was a town within AUSTRIA! The Austrians launched a propaganda campaign to tell people that nothing was really changing, and that Austria would treat them so well. Author Andric warns the reader:

“Whenever a government feels the need of promising peace and prosperity to its citizens by means of a proclamation, it is time to be on guard and expect the opposite.”

And in no time major changes began to occur. The Austrians mined the bridge as a defensive measure much to the horror of the residents. Prices began to rise. Soldiers abounded in the town and money was scarce. Newspapers became popular and people learned to read selectively.

Soon were the Balkan wars and Serbia scored some early impressive victories. And people in Visegrad were turned to the world outside Visegrad and toward the larger world. More and more youth went away to universities, began to adopt very different ideas and world views. They came home with:

“. . . Free-thinking views on social and religious questions and enthusiastically revived nationalism. . . “

People didn’t know what to think but began to somehow believe in a full and open future, at least many of the youth did.

This new generation was from and in Visegrad but no longer OF it. They measured their lives by people, places and especially ideas, which were foreign to their home town.

Young student lovers snuck away to a hidden spot in a new school.

“They had met in a dimly lit, dusty room piled almost to the ceiling with benches. It is thus that the passion of love is often compelled to look for a remote and ugly places.”

The spirit of the young intellectuals, now studying at universities all over the Austrian empire was:

“Modern nationalism will triumph over religious diversities and outmoded prejudice, will liberate our people from foreign influence and exploitation. Then will be national state be born.”

One of my favorite stories of this section was Lotte’s. She was seen as running a popular tavern. In truth she was quite wealthy and had not only invested all over Europe, but was supporting her Jewish relatives all over Europe and the Balkans. She could see and recognize the changes that were coming. She knew resistance was futile. When a distant relative wants to marry a wealthy and good man the marriage is about to founder because he is a Christian. Lotte decides the future on pragmatic grounds to save the family:

“The man whom this niece was to marry was a rich speculator on the Bourse, but a Christian and a Calvinist, and he made it a condition that the girl should be converted to his faith. The relatives all opposed this but Lotte, with the interest of the whole family in mind, said that it was hard to keep afloat with so many people in the boat and that it was sometimes necessary to throw something overboard for the salvation of all the rest. She supported the girl and her word was decisive.

The novel is drawing toward a close and Visegrad has dramatically changed in attitude.

“It is now 1914, the last year in the chronicle of the bridge on the Drina.
. . .
“That was a time on the limits of two epochs in human history whence one could more easily see the end of that epoch which was closing than the beginning of that new one which was opening.”
. . .
“(The most deplorable and tragic of all human weakness is undoubtedly our total incapacity for seeing into the future, which is in sharp contrast to so many of our gifts, our skills and our knowledge.)”

The July assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife changed the nature of the regime. This is real war, but early on in Visegrad the shelling does little damage to the bridge. Finally, however, the bridge does blow up when the bombs ignite the explosives which were hidden in the bridge to prevent its being taken.

While Andric ends the novel with this partial destruction of the bridge today it has been restored and once again plays its modern role in Visegard as “the bridge on the Drina.” This is a simply a fantastic novel and worth anyone’s time to read and read it with care.

Bob Corbett


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