The Vizier’s Elephant: Three Novellas
Great historical novels—and there aren’t many—generally don’t read as if they’re historical. You feel, reading them, that you’re inside their time and place. Their characters aren’t dressed up in period costume, eating (carefully researched) period meals; their lives are real lives, like our own, only taking place in the past. In other words, they’re true to life as we know and feel it, and their texture seems completely natural, however remote or unfamiliar the setting may be. War and Peace—the greatest of all historical novels (of all novels?)—has nothing exotic or old-timey about it: Natasha and Pierre and Andrei are of their time, of course, but their time becomes our time while we’re with them.
When we get to our own day, we find a slew of historical reconstructions, a number of them—Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, for instance, or Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet—highly entertaining or instructive. On a more imaginative level there are Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, and perhaps a handful of others.
How astonishing, then, to come unexpectedly upon a master of the genre—and one who’s been hiding in full view for almost sixty years: it was in 1961 that Ivo Andrić won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Like many people who prided themselves on the wide range of their reading, I had never heard of him until then. Well, he was from Yugoslavia, a state cobbled together in the wake of World War I, but more particularly he was from Bosnia, and he wrote in Serbo-Croatian. Yet there was something about him and his most famous book—which had the unpromising title The Bridge on the Drina—that over the following decades kept prompting me to pay attention.
Then last year I stumbled on another of his novels, Bosnian Chronicle. Here was a revelation—a book of intelligence and sympathy, of the largest historical scope and the most persuasive human detail. Why haven’t we heard about it more often? One reason may be that when we do hear about it, it’s always in relation to Bosnia, as if Andrić is a writer only to be read for what he can tell us about a fraught part of the world we’d just as soon forget. The title that was given to the first English translation is more engaging and more exact: The Days of the Consuls.
In 1807 a rampant Napoleon has arranged with the Ottoman sultan to install a French consulate in Travnik, the administrative center of Bosnia, its population divided among the dominant Muslims, the Roman Catholics, the Serbian Orthodox Christians, and a small number of Sephardic Jews, who after three hundred years are still dreaming of a return to Spain. Ruling over them all is the sultan’s emissary, the vizier Mahmed…
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