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Ivo Andrić: Travnička hronika (Bosnian Story; Bosnian Chronicle; The Days of the Consuls)
As the title says, this is a chronicle, albeit fictionalized, rather than a novel with a conventional plot. It recounts events in and around Travnik, a town in Bosnia and the home town of Andrić. It is set during the Napoleonic period, from 1807 to the (first) fall of Napoleon in 1814. As one of the alternative English titles indicates, it is about the consuls – French and Austrian – who come to Travnik during this period. The story is generally told from the perspective of the consuls, who generally consider the Bosnians to be lazy, dishonest, stupid and worthless. This view is strongly propagated by Andrić, though with a tongue in cheek approach, showing that behind their apparent laziness and stupidity, there is a native cunning that results in their ultimately outsmarting both the consuls and the Ottoman rulers of the area.
The books starts with the arrival of the French consul, Jean Daville. Daville is mildly ambitious, a supporter of Napoleon, a second- (or possibly third-) rate writer, currently writing a massive verse epic about Alexander the Great, but making an obvious comparison with Napoleon. He arrives without his family, who join him later, and is immediately embroiled in the local politics. He is spat upon by the Bosnians who, as Muslims, dislike Christians and French interference. He cannot even count on the support of the local Catholics (who will turn to the Austrian consul) as Napoleonic France is officially secular and anti-Christian, though he manages to elicit the support of the local Jewish community. He does manage to recruit an interpreter, d’Avenat, whom he mistrusts but has no alternative but to use. Andrić does give us a succinct though often complicated biography of d’Avenat, as he does with all of the main characters and, like many of the characters, d’Avenat has quite a mixed background.
The action really starts with the arrival of the Austrian consul, Colonel von Mitterer, who has a somewhat flamboyant wife (who has a brief but soon curtailed affair with Daville’s young assistant, Desfosses). The two men respect one another, as there is a limited European community and they feel that they have much in common but their masters require them to spy on one another and to continually thwart one another’s ambitions, which they both do to their utmost. Desfosses take an interest in the local culture and plans to write a book about Bosnia but Daville, while organizing his anti-Austrian (and anti-English) activities, tends to keep away from the locals, though his dealings with the local viziers are a key part, particularly when there is a change of vizier, due to the messy politics back in Istanbul.
But while the Great Powers are playing their games and as we watch the rise and fall of Napoleon, the Bosnians get on with their lives, thwarting those who stand in their way, sticking to their time-honoured practices, drinking and carousing and thieving, and where they think it appropriate, killing as well. The book is rich with minor characters, from the local priests to the local imam, the families and employees of the consuls and, of course, the viziers and their retinue and Andrić gives us their stories as well as those of the main characters. As a rich portrait of a Bosnian town during their period, with its role in the European conflicts of the time, this is a fascinating work.
First published 1945 by Drzavni izdavaćki zavod Jugoslavije
First published in English 1958 by Lincolns-Prager as Bosnian Story, in 1963 by Knopf as Bosnian Chronicle, in 1992 as The Days of the Consuls