BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Ivo Andrić
University of Chicago Press, 1945
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As much as I enjoyed this novel, I want to mention that it took me quite a while to get through. In fact my review was originally scheduled to post back in May. It’s not that the book was laborious or boring, quite to the contrary. The Bridge on the Drina is one of those books that has a very steadfast feeling, and therefore, rather than feeling eager to get back to it, I was content to put it aside for a few days at a time, and visit it when the mood struck me. This is much the same way I approach reading poetry, as if it were a garden I really enjoyed strolling in, but only until my feet get sore.
That said, this is an excellent and engrossing book. Andrić won the 1961 Nobel Prize for it. In some ways (probably those that encouraged me to read it in parceled segments as I did), it is a conventional and comfortable book. It was easy to dip in and out of because the narration is very straightforward and the plot is episodic in nature, with bite-size chapters linked more thematically than anything else. In fact many of the characters and events are not even taken into account by the participants of later chapters. Unfortunately I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of Drina, but judging from the Wikipedia entry, Andrić seems to have kept pretty true to fact (at least at the major points) in his fictional rendering.
The scope and time frame is more unique. This novel spans almost four hundred years, and this span of time contributes to the episodic nature of the chapters and unique tranference of information from chapter to chapter and generation to generation of character. Andrić does an exceptional job of capturing this expanse of time and rendering it with verisimility on the page. The only physical constant is the great bridge itself, a stalwart heart of the region through centuries of peace and turmoil.
Drina opens with a rather wide lens, describing the building of the bridge and the various lore surrounding it, but the narrative scope quickly narrows. This narrowing happens with such a focused realism as to not only enrapture readers, but to put them into a very specific temporal viewpoint. As power shifts in Višegrad and the country, cruelty, subjugation, and executions become common. When a slave tries to escape his bridge-building duties, he is made an example of. We watch along with the horrified masses as the man endures a brutal torture and death, and all the while we are left in much the same condition as the onlookers, detached but watching with lidless eyes:
From the banks all this could scarcely be heard and still less seen, but all stood there trembling, their faces blanched and their fingers chilled with cold.
From here we follow the generations as they live very different lives. It would take far too long to summarize the plot points, so I shan’t. The bridge is rarely the focus of the story, yet it remains present and relevent to all around it, as natural and necessary to life as the river it crosses.
The metaphor of the bridge cannot be ignored, of course. Andrić is very clever about this. Besides the obvious (bridging the past and the future, binding disconnected and opposing cultures, etc.) the bridge is a heart, a healer, a patriarch, a tomb, a source of power and a point of vulnerability, a gateway and a blockade. For the reader it is a point of reference and comfort, from which to watch as the years and regimes pass through. The Bridge on the Drina is a story about modernization and the pain and cost progress can inflict. It is about tradition and reverence, and the how the power that breeds them is not always in the present how it is remembered. Most importantly, it demonstrates the fragility, fallibility, and impermanence of man.
All this is is expressed via the bridge. Assembled over 5 years at the cost of many lives, the bridge endures the years as generations rise and fade. Yet despite the permanence the bridge holds to each individual whose entire life plays out on and around it as if it were a part of the landscape, the bridge is manmade, defenseless, and aging.
When a hodja notices the bridge damaged at the onset of the first world war, and finds debris from the bridge at his feet, he thinks:
Only in dreams could one see and experience such things. Only in dreams. But when he turned away from this improbable sight, there stood before him his shop with the great stone, a tiny part of that seventh pier [of the bridge], among his scattered goods. If it was a dream, it was everywhere.
Here Andrić uses the constancy of the bridge to express that slap-in-the-face realization that war surely brings to everyone it touches. It is near the close of the novel, and carries all the more weight for it. After reading about generations growing and dying and fighting around this bridge, I saw it as more than just Drina‘s centerpiece. It becomes its main character. And this character has weathered so much that it’s difficult to witness the progress (if you can call it such) it has endured through ages catch up and surpass it. To be honest, and this is probably not a very appropriate analogy, it gave me a very Velveteen Rabbit moment.
This novel is excellent, and will be enjoyed by any reader interested in historical fiction or Baltic history. This is also a great secondary book to keep on hand, to pick up and nibble at when you want a diversion from whatever else you are reading. That is how I read it, and I think I enjoyed it all the more for that approach.
Other Books: The Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Vreeland), Winesburg, Ohio (Anderson), The Notebook, The Proof, and The Third Lie – Three Novels (Kristof), Middlesex (Eugenides)