THE Bosnian historical novel

The most highly recommended book on the suggested reading list before our trip to Croatia was Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija). Andric 1892-1975) received a Nobel Prize in literature in 1961 primarily for that book, though I had never heard of it or of him. Reading the introduction made it clear that the “novel” is set entirely in Bosnia.

The book is at time riveting (almost literally…) and there is something to the claims that the main character is the bridge itself, the Mehmed Pasha Sokolovich Bridge across the Drina River in eastern Bosnia near the town of Vishegrad, where Andric grew up.* The real bridge was designed and built between 1566-1571 by the greatest Ottoman architect,. Mimar Sinan (1489-1588, who also designed and built the great Suleiman Mosque on an Istanbul hillside) on command of Bosnian-born grand vizier Sokollu Mehmet (1506-1579).


Inn what Andric called a “chronicle” rather than a novel, Rade the architect builds the bridge on the command of the grand vizier, who passed across the Drina having been selected for Yencheri (janissary) training in the Ottoman devshirme (“head tax”). The grand vizier also endowed a hostel (caravanserai) with income from Hungarian possessions that were later lost to the shrinking Ottoman Empire (so that the building was abandoned; eventually the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian soldiers build a barracks on the site).

The Bosnians—whether they are Eastern Orthodox Christians (from the era of Byzantine rule) or Muslims (there was a mass conversion to Islam by those who had been Bogomils (considered heretics both by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches) or (in smaller numbers) Croats (Roman Catholics) or Jews in Andric’s book are very suspicious about any change (including the construction of the bridge). They do not kill each other or engage in what we now call “ethnic cleansing,” and the religious leaders of the Orthodox, the Muslim, and the Jewish believers go together to meet with the Austrian commander when the Ottoman sultan ceded Bosnia to the Hapsburgs in 1878.

Violence on the basis of creed/ethnicity breaks out during the Balkan Wars (which led directly to World War I). What Andric, an ardent pan-Slavist, wrote about that period applies all to well to later atrocities in Bosnia and elsewhere in the world:

“As so often happened in the history of man, permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.”

(In this instance, it is Serbs who were being killed and the Austrian Prefect who “knows nothing and wants to know nothing.” Earlier in the Balkan wars, when Serbia was prevailing (and more recently) it was Muslims who were targeted.)

Although anyone now reading a book covering four centuries of history near the (eastern) edge of Bosnia is going to take particular notice of cruelty and intolerance, the books is far more about a backward area of feuding quasi-tribal peoples being forced into the “world system,” or at least the large Ottoman Empire and then the large Hapsburg Empire.

The Ottomans sought boys to train to run the empire (the sultanate was hereditary, but other offices were staffed by slaves gathered from non-Muslim fringes of the empire who would not have any connections in the capital, Constantinople/Istanbul — like Mehmed Pasha Sokolovich.

The Austrians introduced a cash economy:

“Like fresh blood, money began to circulate in hitherto unknown quantities, and, which was the main thing, publicly, boldly, and openly. In that exciting circulation of gold, silver, and negotiable paper, every man could warm his hands or at least ‘gladden his eyes’, for it created even for the poorest of men the illusion that his own bad luck was only temporary and therefore more bearable.”

With each change fostered from without, traditional sensibilities were felt to be insulted at first “and then grew accustomed to them, as they had grown accustomed to other innovations, even though they did not approve of them.”

Right through the end of the novel, during the First World War, there are zealots of various sorts, but the general preference is to live foolishly rather than to die foolishly.

The passages I have quoted are sociological, but the book is primarily not such analyses, but a series of stories about Orthodox and Muslim characters and one very prominent Jewess trying to stay alive and prosper in ever-changing circumstances. The episodicness of the book is the reason to classify it as a fictionalized chronicle rather than a novel, though Andric is not hesitant to attribute motivation to his characters of whatever creed/ethnicity.

It seems to me that the one he presents most sympathetically is Alihodja, a Muslim storekeeper who consistently advocates moderation and not being bewitched by zealotries, whether Muslim, Serbian, or Austrian. And the second most-prominent character is a Jewish woman, inn-keeper Lotte.


Andric himself identified as Yugoslavian (the union of Southern Slavic peoples) or (multiethnic) Bosnian. Since the violent fission of a Yugoslavia which was considered a Serbian empire (“greater Serbia”) in other parts of what had been the communist Yugoslavia, claims have been made that Andric was a Serb (since he wrote in Cyrillic script) and that he was a Croat (by ancestry) and Muslims, including those in charge of education in the current Bosnia, have claimed he disparaged Muslims. His chronicle includes cruelty from Ottoman overlords (who were not “Turks” but functionaries of non-Turkic origin serving the sultan in Istanbul) along with the benefice of the bridge and hostelry by a grand vizier and the sultan’s government. But it also includes rapacity and violence by Serbs, and more cold-blooded violence by the Roman Catholic Austrians. Andric does not take the side of one ethnicity/creed in The Bridge on the Drina. He included sympathetic characters of all four creeds and seems to me to have presented tolerance and cautiousness about embracing fashions/changes as admirable. (That is, Andric seems conservative, but not at all a proponent of Serbian superiority or for Serbian domination.)

What the authorial voice most values, the engineering marvel that stood for centuries linking the bulk of Bosnia with Ottoman and Serbian easts is the bridge itself. And it seems important that in his title, Andric used the Turkish word for a bridge (cuprija) rather than the standard Serbo-Croatian word for bridge (most). To claim that the sorrowing book is anti-Muslim or even anti-Ottoman is IMO absurd. As is trying to draft him in retrospect for Serbianist or Croatianist ideologies or for the partition of Bosnia.

World politics recurrently impinge on the villagers, and no one could plausibly argue that Andric was apolitical. He was a champion of uniting southern Slavs, serving the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia as Deputy Foreign Minister and later Ambassador to Germany, and as a member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the communist (Tito) era. (BTW, he donated the money from his Nobel Prize (which lauded “for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country”) to improvement of libraries in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

* He was born in Travnik in central Bosnia, 90 km west of Sarajevo. His father died when the boy was two, and he was raised by his mother’s family in Vishegrad, then attended the Jesuit gymnasium in Travnik, one in Sarajevo’s gymnasium, and, later, universities in Zagreb, Vienna, Krakow and Graz. He was imprisoned by the Austrians during World War I, and wrote his major works in Belgrade during World War II (having been ambassador to Berlin, he seems to have been left alone).


©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray