Ivo Andrić: Na Drini ćuprija (The Bridge on the Drina)
As the title implies this book tells the story of the bridge over the Drina in Višegrad in present-day Bosnia. The story starts from its construction in 1571 under the orders of Mehmet Pasha and continues to 1914, as the Serbs flee the town at the beginning of World War I. Indeed, the story starts a little bit before, as we see the a Turkish practice of taking away young boys to Istanbul to become good Turks and one of these boys, we learn, is the future Mehmet Pasha. Andrić’s story is the story of the bridge. There is no hero but for the bridge.
The story starts, naturally, with the construction of the bridge. Though it is put in motion by Mehmet Pasha, he remains in Istanbul. Construction takes place under the supervision of Abidaga, a ruthless Turk, determined to build the bridge at all costs. The costs include forced, unpaid labour by the local population. Eventually, the locals object and start sabotaging the work at night. The guards are initially unable to find the culprits but when, under threat from Abidaga, they do find a culprit, he is put up on the bridge on a stake, with the stake driven between his legs. This naturally discourages other opposition. However, Mehmet Pasha comes to hear that Abidaga is using the money allocated to him for personal gain and he is dismissed and replaced by Arif Beg, who is honest and who pays and feeds the workers.
The rest of the novel tells a series of stories about events that occurred in and around the bridge. The bridge has a kapia, a wide area in the middle of the bridge, where built-in benches are set so that, in normal times, people can sit and chat and, in abnormal times, guard-houses can be built. There are a lot of abnormal times. Many of these involved various revolts and invasions, from the various Serb revolts to the occupation of Bosnia by the Austrians up to the events of World War I. There are also threats of attack and disease. These events and their effect on both the town and on the bridge are described in detail by Andrić. However, he has a lot of time for other stories, such as the bride who throws herself in the river rather than marry the man chosen for her by her father to the man who cannot marry the woman he wants and is encouraged to throw himself in the river by his friends and ends up dancing successfully along the parapet on a cold dark night.
Andrić is a wonderful story teller and his stories are rich and varied. He shows the main ethnic groups of the town – the Turks, the Serbians and the Jews – and how they interact, how their customs differ and how they each deal with misfortune, which usually means that their group is out of favour. Despite the fact that we meet many characters through the 350 years of the bridge’s existence, Andrić portrays them as individuals with their own quirks, from Radisav, the man who had tried to destroy the bridge and ended up being brutally killed to Alihodja, the shop owner, and Lotte, the Serbian inn owner, who are there at the end. But the bridge remains the hero and the best witness of what happened.
First published 1945 by Prosveta
First published in English 1959 by Allen & Unwin