“Nothing brings men closer together than a common misfortune happily overcome.”
Few writers are capable of tracing and presenting the turbulent and complex history of the Balkans through the centuries (since the Ottoman rule to the First World War) as masterfully as Bosnia’s Ivo Andrić, Winner of the Noble Prize for Literature and author of ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, his absolute masterpiece.
I was very lucky to read this novel before visiting Bosnia; it helped me understand the unique cultural legacy of that part of the world, always stuck between powerful empires (Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians) and warring sides (Serbs and Croats), always an easy and likely victim for religious zealots and political dogs of war.
The novel traces the lives of the people of Višegrad, whose lives have always revolved around the great Ottoman bridge that bears witness to their joys and sorrows, their pain and passion. One generation after another, the human condition is captured to perfection through a myriad stories and anecdotes; the bridge and the city become a microcosm at the mercy of greater powers and radical changes.
The novel is dotted with fantastic tales and heart-breaking moments. I chose two of them to share with you.
First, the horrendous blood tribute by the Ottomans in Eastern Bosnia:
“On that November day a long convoy of laden horses arrived on the left bank of the river and halted there to spend the night. The aga of the janissaries, with armed escort, was returning to Istanbul after collecting from the villages of eastern Bosnia the appointed number of Christian children for the blood tribute.
It was the sixth year since the last collection of this tribute of blood and so this time the choice has been easy and rich; the necessary number of healthy, bright and good-looking lads between ten and fifteen years old had been found without difficulty, even though many parents had hidden their children in the forests, taught them how to appear half-witted, clothed them in rags and let them get filthy, to avoid the aga’s choice. Some went so far as to maim their own children, cutting off one of their fingers with an axe.
(…) A little way behind the last horses in that strange convoy straggled, dishevelled and exhausted, many parents and relatives of those children who were being carried away forever to a foreign world, where they would be circumcized, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the ranks of the janissaries or in some other, higher service of the Empire.”
Second, an imaginary religious explanation of how and why bridges are divine structures:
“My father told me as a child how bridges first came to this world and how the first bridge was built. When Allah the Merciful and Compassionate first created this world, the earth was smooth and even as a finely engraved plate. That displeased the devil who envied man this gift of God. And while the earth was still just as it had come from God’s hands, damp and soft as unbaked clay, the devil stole up and scratched the face of God’s earth with his nails as much and as deeply as he could. Therefore, the story says, deep rivers and ravines were formed which divided one district from another and kept people apart, preventing them from travelling on that earth that God had given them as a garden for their food and their support.
And God felt pity when he saw what the Accursed One had done, but was not able to return to the task which the devil had spoiled with his nails, so God sent his angels to help people and make things easier for them. When the angels say how unfortunate men could not pass those abysses and ravines to finish the work they had to do, but tormented themselves and looking in vain and shouted from one side to the other, the angels spread their wings above those places and men were able to cross. So people learned from the angels of God how to build bridges, and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with one, for every bridge, from a tree trunk crossing a mountain stream to this great bridge of Mehmed Pasha (Sokolovići), has its guardian angel who cares for it and maintains it as long as God has ordained that it should stand.”