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Ivo Andrić: Gospođjica (The Woman from Sarajevo)

We know what is going to happen to Miss Raika, as Andrić tells us in the first paragraph. She will die, alone, in her house in Belgrade in 1935. Her body will not be found for two days, when the postman gets suspicious. The novel tells us how she arrived at this situation. Miss Raika is the daughter of Obren Radakovich and Radoyka, nee Hadzi-Vasich. Obren was a successful businessman in Sarajevo. He was elegant, well-liked and a good father. His daughter was devoted to him. But then, suddenly, things went wrong. Miss Raika actually learned about it from a classmate, who reacted when Raika laughed at her for falling down. Her father was broke. Gradually, he stopped going out and seemed to be suffering. The doctor could do nothing. As he lay on his death-bed, he called his fifteen-year old daughter to him and told her that he only had a little to leave her, that her mother was not really capable of making decisions and that it was up to her and, most particularly, to be at all times thrifty to avoid getting into the situation into which he had got into. He also warned her not to become dependent on others. She took her father’s warning very much to heart.

She dropped out of school and changed her ways. But first there was her uncle Vlado, her mother’s brother. He was dashing and elegant but also a spendthrift. While her father’s friends and associates did try to help the two women, they soon found, to their surprise, that the young woman was going to do things her way – cautious, thrifty and independent. Gradually, costs were cut in the household. Staff were dismissed. Expenditure was reduced, from heating to food. Above all, to her mother’s chagrin, social obligations were cut to the bone. Beggars, who could always expect some food from the household, were turned away. The small store that her father still had was being run by a man called Veso. Raika became involved. If she had any doubts, Uncle Vlado’s untimely death, riddled with debt, showed her the way. When, at the age of eighteen, she inherited some money, she began to cautiously lend money. People came to her in desperation. She was only interested in whether she could make money from them and get her money back. Otherwise, they were ruthlessly turned away. She got to know Rafo Konforti, a local Jewish trader, who seemed to know what was what. She began speculating in currency, taking advantage of the political changes in Bosnia, particularly the annexation of the country by Austria-Hungary. Now she had one aim. She had read about millionaires and she wanted to be one herself.

When World War I came, starting, of course, in Sarajevo, she and Rafo took full advantage of shortages and hoarded and speculated. She was worried about the attacks on Serbs after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but she managed to survive. Eventually, Rafo realised that speculation and hoarding was not the right way to behave and helped people in dire distress. Raika did not. But this was not the way to behave and she was attacked in the press, so she made small contributions to worthy causes, making sure that everyone knew and often making a profit out of it. But the war ended and, towards the end, money ceased to have value. Raika could not understand this. She was attacked in the nationalist press for her greed and, eventually, there was no way out. She and her mother had to leave town and head for Belgrade. They stayed with relatives which Raika, hated but, eventually, got their own house in a poorer district and settled down to their life as before. This time it was not so easy for Raika.

Andrić tells a wonderful story of an avaricious woman, cut off from virtually everyone, except her parents and the memory of her parents, after they die. All of her life is conditioned by the warning she has received from her revered and beloved father. He had been on a pedestal and had then fallen. This was not going to happen to her, even if it meant being an outcast, being cold, being undernourished, being miserable. Andrić cleverly shows how things get worse and worse, slowly but surely, over a period of time, till, as we know, she will be found dead in her house, with no-one knowing about her and no-one caring for her.

Publishing history

First published 1945 by Svjetlost
First published in English 1965 by Knopf