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Bridge on the Drina Review

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The Bridge on the Drina
By: Ivo Andric

See how Mehmed Pasha, the greatest among the wise and great of his time,
Mindful of the testament of his heart, by his care and toil
Has built a bridge over the River Drina,
Over this water, deep and swift-flowing.
His predecessors had not been able to put up anything.
I pray that by the Mercy of Allah this bridge will be firm
And that its existence will be passed in happiness
And that it will never know sorrow.
For in his lifetime he poured out gold and silver for his bequest
And no man can say that fortune has been wasted
Which has been spent to such an end.
Badi, who has seen this, when the bridge was completed gave this tarah.
“May Allah bless this building, this wonderful and beautiful bridge.” (68)

Published in 1945, the novel, The Bridge on the Drina, is a moving, semi-fictional account of a bridge over the river Drina in Bosnia. Set in the small village/town of Višegrad, the novel spans from the late sixteenth century to the beginning of the First World War. Written in anecdotal style, The Bridge on the Drina relates the suffering of various peoples in relation to the bridge. The extended metaphor of a decaying bridge, paralleled with a decaying Ottoman Empire is an extremely intriguing one, one that captures and retains the reader’s attention. At the book’s conclusion, the bridge is destroyed by the Austrians, who blow an enormous hole in the center of it at the beginning of World War I; much like the Ottoman Empire is destroyed by the end of the war. Dr. Ivo Andric was a native to Bosnia, having spent much of his life in Višegrad. (7). The bridge was a monumental remnant of the Ottoman grip on this region, however, over time, the bridge was adapted as a more local landmark, albeit one with an incredible history. The bridge over the Drina is featured in folklore and is a fixture in local culture. Andric presents stories from both Muslims and Christians, including a mingling of the religions in many of the stories. In the introduction, renowned historian William McNeill states his opinion regarding this book: "No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists, nor do I know of any work of fiction that more persuasively introduces the reader to a civilization other than our own. It is an intellectual and emotional adventure to encounter the Ottoman world through Andric's pages in its grandiose beginning and at its tottering finale. It is, in short, a marvelous work, a masterpiece, and very much sui generis. . . . Andric's sensitive portrait of social change in distant Bosnia has revelatory force." These words fit perfectly with my perception of this novel, despite the fact that I don’t have a lot of experience with other materials in this field. In fact, it is my inexperience with the field which leads me to agree with McNeill’s words regarding The Bridge on the Drina. The novel begins with a vivid description of the Bosnian countryside and village of Višegrad. Andric’s language throughout the work is lyrical and poetic at times, and is masterful in its descriptions of places, people and events. This first chapter is an introduction to the major character of this work: The Bridge itself. Hinting at the local legends inspired by the bridge, Andric presents the village of Višegrad and its famous bridge to us. The chapter awakens a curiosity in the reader, wondering why twins would be walled into the stone parapets, or why a Vezir would choose a place such as Višegrad to build his marvelous bridge. The Bridge on the Drina flows beautifully from one chapter to the next. The tales relayed to us are haunting and sad, but there is tranquility stemming from this bridge in some ways as well. Balkan history is haunting and sad; therefore, Andric has perfectly captured the emotions of Bosnia and her neighboring states during this time frame. Bosnia: Always subject to those larger, more aggressive states around her. In this book, the people of Višegrad are under both Sultan and Emperor, as the territory trades hands from the Ottoman Empire to the Austrian Habsburgs. The lives of the people around this bridge are ephemeral, but the bridge itself lasts to the very end as a stalwart reminder and a crucial feature of later policies and tactics. The second chapter relays the time before the bridge. It begins with beautiful depictions of the river Drina and a surly ferryman, transitioning into the terrible account of a sorrowful procession. The Devshirme, a tax which deprived Christians of their children, is a heartbreaking opener. Poignant words describe the wailing of mothers as they follow their children to the shores of the Drina and are unable to cross the waters. Instead, they sit by the river and watch their children be carried out of sight. The reader is immediately sucked into the emotional maelstrom that encompasses the entire text, and it is revealed that the Vezir who ordered this bridge built was one of those children. Mehmed Pasha Sokolli was raised in the Turkish court after being collected by the Devshirme from his village in Bosnia who rose to the rank of Vezir. He ordered the magnificent bridge to be built in order to replace the ferry which had cruelly carried him away from his previous life. He believed if that ferry was destroyed, the pain he felt in his heart would dissipate. Thus, the bridge was begun. Andric’s following chapters describe the construction of the Drina Bridge. Construction is hard and painful work and the residents of Višegrad are described as not quite understanding the concept or meaning of this project. However, they do understand that they are being forced to work very long hours with no pay or food while their families starve and fields rot. As an attempt to dissuade the Turks from building this dreadful bridge, several men decide to un-do the work that is done during the day under the cover of darkness. Despite the seriousness of this small revolt, anyone familiar with Slavic folklore cannot help but smile at the rumors of fairies preventing the Turks from completing their grand project. Sadly, this revolt comes to an end when the workman, Radisav is captured. As punishment, Radisav is impaled and left to die in a gruesome scene upon the bridge itself. Thus, the first blood is shed upon the Drina Bridge. Andiric’s descriptions of this event inspire an eerie sense of disgust, revulsion and pity for this fictional character that is so strongly recognized among the Balkan peoples. Another pathetic creature, named Mad Ilinka, is a half-witted girl who simply wanders around Višegrad, searching for her lost twin children. The children supposedly died at birth and were buried, but Ilinka does not comprehend this fact and wanders about the construction site looking for the babies. These two characters were introduced in the opening chapter. A white, milky substance which flows out of the stones of the bridge is said to be Ilinka’s milk. The legend reads that Ilinka fed her children who were walled into the bridge by the Turks by dripping her breast milk through a crack in the stones. The story serves as a pitiful reminder of Turkish cruelty. Nonetheless, it remains in memory and passes into legend and a sort of truth. Radisav is remembered through a mound of earth, which is understood by Christian children to be his grave. Turkish children, however, believe the mound is the grave-site of a great Turkish warrior. It is in this small way that Andric demonstrates the flexibility of collective memory and legend. Another character, “The Black Arab”, is killed during the construction of the Drina Bridge. He is also mentioned in the introduction of the bridge. The Black Arab has become a ghoulish sort of boogey-man for the children surrounding the bridge on the Drina. For whatever reason, the Black Arab has passed into the realm of make-believe; as a sort of ghostly reminder of caution upon the Bridge. Andric grants equal attention to Christians, Jews and Muslims. All are allowed to express themselves in this novel, whether it be in a private or public sphere. Both Christians and Turks suffer in this region, depending on who is in charge at any specific point in time. For example, the character Alihodja is a Muslim shopkeeper who is nailed to the bridge by his right ear by other Muslims for refusing to participate in a resistance against the Austrians. Another character, known only as the man from Plevje, descends into madness under the pressure from the chief architect of the bridge, Abidaga, and from the additional stress from the execution of Radisav. By providing examples of suffering Muslims, Andric reminds the reader that there were many suffering persons in this region, regardless of their religion. Bridge on the Drina also has several female characters. One such character, Fata, stands out at the forefront of such characters. Her story is a heartbreaking episode which concludes with her suicide. The only daughter of Avdaga, her beauty was widely known and it inspired a great pride within her. According to Turkish custom, she was to be married off to the man of her father’s choosing. However, she had boasted that she would marry only when “Velje Lug comes down to Nezuke.” (106). Instead, her father chose for her to marry Nail Hamzic, which greatly distressed her. On her wedding day as she was crossing the Drina Bridge, Fata “urged her horse to the very edge of the bridge, put her right foot on the stone parapet, sprang from the saddle as if she had wings, leapt over the parapet and threw herself into the roaring river below the bridge.” (111). This girl chose death from the Drina then a loveless marriage, as well as to cease the suffering of her pride. Another female character is the Jewess, Lotte. She runs the hotel on the kapia that is owned by her brother-in-law. Lotte is a strong woman, obviously highly respected by those in the community. Although many men who visit her establishment are infactuated with her, Lotte is always friendly and talkative with every customer. However, she does not hesitate to toss out any unruly customers when they are past the point of being capable of calming down. The interesting thing about Lotte is her private side. Andric’s description of Lotte’s quiet moments in her office, when Lotte can release herself from her public mask, is touching and intriguing. She writes letters to family and friends, Jews all over Europe; helping and guiding them through life. She pays bills and organizes schedules. Lotte is a strong, independent woman. Although her brother-in-law owns the hotel, Lotte is clearly defined as the owner. This might be unusual for a woman in this time period, but one cannot help but admire Lotte and feel as though she is a figure in fiction that might very well have existed in some way in the past. The Bridge on the Drina is an epic novel and an extremely helpful aid in understanding Balkan and Bosnian history. Despite the fact that this work is fictitious, one can only assume that these characters embody in some sense an actual historical figure. These characters are metaphorically representative of the people of Višegrad, as well as of the Balkans in general. For example, the character Fata may or may not have existed, but for sure, there was someone like her. Her story is unique in some ways, but representative in others. The focus of The Bridge on the Drina is narrow and specific; however the stories are representative of a greater, wider, Balkan world. Balkan and Ottoman politics are reflected in the village of Višegrad, where people go about their business and relax on the kapia. The villagers, Christians and Turks alike, grumble about various changes and modernization techniques, but in the end, most accept them. No matter what time period this book discusses, some things are always the same. There are always old men sitting, smoking, eating and talking on the wide space of the kapia. As time went on, his group became more diversified, first by children, then Christians, and then, finally by women. The group was also permeated by outsiders of Višegrad, foreign soldiers, merchants and settlers. Over time, all become accepted and welcome on the bridge, and it truly becomes a communal locale. Over the years, during the numerous military conflicts, the bridge was often the site of barracks or guard stations. A character which stands out in memory, a Rutherian soldier named Gregor Fedun who ended his life in shame. Fedun was a member of the streifkorps who allowed himself to be distracted by the ruse of a young Bosnian girl. The girl escorted a notorious rebel across the bridge after sparking an infatuation within Fedun, leading to her capture and the punishment of Fedun. Fedun, who had only joined the streifkorps in order to avoid the poverty of his familial home and to send money home to his parents, ended his life after learning of his carelessness on the bridge. Fedun’s name faded from memory, much like those whose heads were displayed on the bridge eons ago, but the story lived on. He was buried in the churchyard, a foreigner who committed suicide, but still a Christian. This bridge over the river Drina lasted for several centuries. Begun by the Ottoman Vezir, this bridge survived several floods, wars, famines, occupations and other such events. When the Great Flood came, all that remained intact was the bridge. The site of some of the most ghastly horrors, tragic moments and joyful conversation, the bridge on the Drina was a silent monument and cultural distinction for the people of Višegrad. Connecting the Asiatic world of Ottoman Turkey to Eastern Europe, the bridge on the Drina suffered the indignity of having a large hole blown in the middle of it during the opening stages of World War I. This bridge suffered many indignities, however it still stood. Much like the Balkan peoples, this bridge survived at all odds. Pieces of it may have chipped away or disintegrated, but pieces were replaced and the bridge was always in use in some way or another. The bridge became a vital feature of Višegrad, and The Bridge on the Drina captures it all. These people may be fictional, but this bridge and the meanings behind these stories are real.…...

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