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Ivo Andrić: Omerpaša Latas (Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan)

Omer Pasha Latas was born Mihajlo Latas, an ethnic Serb, in Austria in 1806. His father was charged with stealing 180 florins from a military safe which mean that his son, then in the military, would be disgraced, so he fled to Bosnia Eyalet, then part of the Ottoman Empire. He became tutor to a Turkish merchant (for which he had to be circumcised and become a Muslim) and gradually worked his way into the military and up the ranks. A successful marriage helped him up the ranks and, eventually, he became a general, with a reputation for quelling rebellions wherever they were found in the Ottoman Empire.

At the start of this book, he is due to arrive in Sarajevo. He is there to bring to heel the Bosnian leaders who, in his view, have not been following the rules of the Sultan. On arrival he puts on a show of force. For the populace, it was terrible, mysterious, dangerous and, like it or not, beautiful, everything that had passed before them—weapons, soldiers and, particularly, the officers! but for all its splendour and severity, its real menace and danger, there had been something unnatural and deranged about that whole parade.

He summons the leading lights to his quarters and lectures them on the need to follow the Sultan’s edicts. He warns them that their usual ways will not work. He will not accept bribes, not least because he can take all their possessions if he so pleases. He will not be put off by their promises to behave, and then going away and carrying on as before. Despite this, they promise to behave and then go away and discuss how they can subvert his plans.

Gradually, Omer Pasha imposes his will on Bosnia. We see his tactics, a mixture of force – many people are arrested and taken away in chains, sometimes to Istanbul, at other times to a large house requisitioned for the purpose, a house which the locals now steer well clear of – and cajoling. He invites various leaders and tries to persuade them to follow the party line. He is less successful in this endeavour.

His troops spread all over the whole country and woe betide anyone who keeps livestock or, indeed, any food visible, as it will be requisitioned. They are given a receipt but, for most of them it is worthless, partially because they cannot read and have no idea what the receipt is and partially because they do not trust and have never trusted the Turkish authorities.

Worse still is the danger to the women of the country. An army of hard-working men, away from their wives and girlfriends, is a danger to any female of virtually any age. Only the really old and really infirm women can escape. In all these cases – the food and women – Andrić gives us specific accounts of events.

One of the strengths of this book is our view of Omer Pasha. We see him from many perspectives – the Bosnian leaders, the Bosnian people, his wife, his staff and various others. They all have a decidedly mixed view of him, by no means always positive. Some examples will give an idea. Omer Pasha decides to have his portrait done. The locals are outraged as this is contrary to Islamic teachings but he is indifferent or even ignorant of their views. Vjekoslav Karas is hired for the purpose. (We follow Karas’ story in some detail, one of the many characters in the book whose story we follow in detail.)

While he is actually drawing and painting Omer Pasha – and it takes some time till we get to that point – we follow the thoughts of both men. Karas is in something of a trance, focussing entirely on his work and unconcerned about the overweening power of his subject. Pasha, meanwhile, is initially furious that the painter – a mere painter – is not showing the respect that he, Pasha, merits. However, he gradually calms down and gradually drifts into his own daydream, namely his early life, about which we learn his own perception of himself, and also how and why he left Austria.

Another example concerns Ahmet Aga, who works for the Pasha. What his exact title is, is not clear but we do know that one of his roles is procuring young girls and boys for the sexually ravenous Pasha (despite the fact that his wife is there). Ahmet Aga is a hard man but even he is disgusted by this work he has to do.

One of the stories ends in tragedy when one of the Pasha’s staff falls in love with a woman, who rejects him out of hand. Things go from bad to worse and the whole business ends tragically.

Bosnia is left almost destitute by the actions of Omer Pasha and his men but he seems indifferent to this. Eventually, of course he leaves. Surprisingly, this is a bad time for him, When he is called up to suppress a rebellion, the Sultan and other Istanbul dignitaries praise and shower him with gifts. However, as the rebellion is gradually suppressed, the praise is reduced and tongues start wagging. He soon falls out of favour, till the next time he is needed.

While there is not a unifying plot to this book, except, of course, for the stay of the Pasha and his troops in Bosnia and their actions while there, we do learn a lot about various individuals and also about the Pasha himself. Andrić was Bosnian so he clearly is not objective in his telling. We learn that not only is the Pasha a turncoat, a sexual monster and devious, His policy is deceit.

He kept to the unwritten Istanbul principle, which he had brought to perfection: for the lie to be complete and useful as an instrument in the battle, the truth had to be hidden, nothing should be definitive or dependable. Thus everything would remain uncertain, everything could always be revoked or altered, even what had been said, formally promised or signed, even if it had been carried out.

Morality is not to be found. His wife, who has good reason to condemn him, says Yes, killing and lechery! Because everything in this house is infected with foul, profane lechery: timber and stone and every last rag; bread and water and air are infected with it; and lechery kills, it must kill, for it’s the same as death, unnatural, shameful. Gossip is the order of the day: an invisible web of intrigue, slander, whispering and, particularly malicious gossip was constantly being woven, tangled, untangled and woven anew. In short, for Andrić, the Pasha was not good for Bosnia and probably not good for the Ottoman Empire.

While not perhaps of the same calibre as his earlier works, this is still a fine novel, not least for giving us a detailed portrait of nineteenth century Bosnia under occupation. It is full of colourful stories. We learn that many of the people who support the Ottoman Empire – the Pasha, his wife, the painter and many of his staff – are not Turks but originally come from the West, or at least from Europe. We learn that morality was low, that lying, deceit and hypocrisy have been around for many years and that Eastern Europe has had a long history of suffering.

Publishing history

First published 1976 by Svjetlost
First published in English 2018 by New York Review Books