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 Pasha. It is with him that the new French consul, Jean-Baptiste Etienne Daville, will have to deal.
To the Bosnians, given their geographical remoteness, their entrenched, practically medieval way of life, and their almost paranoid xenophobia, the arrival of the French consul and, soon after, of a rival consul from Hapsburg Austria is a threat—the first impingement of European ways of thinking, of modernity, of progress. When Daville, with all appropriate pomp, sets forth to pay his first official call on the vizier, the local population lining the streets greets him with ferocious abuse, screaming curses and spitting at him and his retinue.
What happens to Daville, and to Travnik, through the following years that lead up to the downfall of Napoleon and the withdrawal of the French is the surface material of Bosnian Chronicle—a story full of incident and splendidly conceived characters. But it is the inner lives of these characters, most richly Daville’s—the confusions, the flickering hopes, the exhausting disappointments, the abandonment of conviction—that grip us. Daville is a well-meaning, conscientious, hard-working functionary of no particular genius, closer to forty than to thirty; a family man with literary aspirations. As a boy he had been thrilled by a glimpse of Louis XVI; as a young man he had been an ardent believer in the Revolution, a soldier, a political journalist. Later he had been galvanized by Bonaparte. Now he finds himself trapped in the hazards and tedium of a daunting, alien world. An exile.
There is to be no hint of rapport with the Bosnian population, which he despises. The human connections Daville will make in Travnik are with his “enemies,” his Austrian counterparts, who are suffering the same soul-destroying exile; with a small assortment of interpreters and doctors and men of religion; and with the two intelligent Ottoman viziers he will deal with in turn, both of them more worldly and congenial than the “barbaric” Bosnians they rule (congenial except when they’re chopping off the noses and ears of defeated enemies). They, too, are exiles.
Daville’s only balm is his placid, open-hearted, practical wife, whom even the locals come to admire. He has no satisfaction from the young man, Amédée Des Fossés, whom the French government sends to assist him in the consulate. Des Fossés, a dozen years his junior, is bright, quick, confident—a pure product of Napoleon’s empire. The Revolution is ancient history to him, and the Bosnians fascinate rather than repel him: he studies them and sympathizes with them in the spirit of his questing Enlightenment mind. He also sympathizes all too fervently with the Viennese wife of the Austrian consul, Madame von Mitterer, a narcissist who indulges herself in romantic flirtations with young men until they attempt to translate romance into action, whereupon she collapses into wild seizures of frustration, denial, and remorse, from which her patient husband has to gently rescue her. (What a subject for Freud! But the great Viennese doctor was to come along too late to be of use to Madame.)
While we observe with fascination the European diplomats and the Ottoman overlords sustaining their frictions and rivalries and hostilities—and their sporadic fellowship—through the seven-year history of the consuls, we also come to sense how little this history has marked Travnik itself. The name “Bunoparta” had obsessed and frightened the world until, after the Russian debacle of 1812, it no longer did, and the French tide began to recede from Europe, leaving places like Bosnia restored to their previous somnolence and sporadic savagery. It also left Frenchmen like Daville struggling with the consequences of the disaster. He is instructed to abandon his now-useless post and to close down the consulate. With no means of his own and the government unable to provide him with funds, it is only through the totally unexpected generosity of an elderly Jewish merchant that he is able to return with his family to whatever life he can construct for them under the newly restored Bourbon monarchy.
How did a man like Ivo Andrić come to understand so well the soul of an inconsequential diplomat from a time so different from his own? When he himself as a young diplomat was posted to Paris he found in the archives—and studied obsessively—the letters and reports of the real-life models for Daville and Des Fossés, eventually even incorporating passages from them into his novel. But with his sophisticated intelligence and unswerving grasp of historical realities, he was nothing like Daville, and his life, unlike Daville’s, was a rich and rewarded progress from extremely modest beginnings to world acclaim.
Andrić was born in 1892 in Travnik but raised in the small town of Višegrad (the setting for The Bridge on the Drina) by an aunt and uncle. His father had died when he was two and his mother was eking out a living in Sarajevo, unable to support her child. The family were all Croatian Catholics. He was an average student (with an exceptional aptitude for languages), but scholarships carried him to the leading gymnasium in Sarajevo and on to university in Zagreb, Vienna, and Cracow, earning him the enthusiastic support of his professors, one of whom found him a job in a ministry in Belgrade. Before then, however, recurring tuberculosis exacerbated by extreme poverty had threatened his life, and his ardent pro-Slavic politics had led to his arrest and imprisonment by the Austro-Hungarian authorities: he had been (wrongly) suspected of being implicated in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo.
Andrić had since childhood seen himself as a writer, and by the time he had found a place in the Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was publishing short stories, quickly becoming recognized as a significant talent. Meanwhile, he was climbing the diplomatic ladder, posted to the Vatican, to Bucharest, to Trieste, as vice-consul in Graz and Marseilles and Paris and Madrid, and eventually on to Geneva, where he served Yugoslavia at the League of Nations. Early on, his gifts and his character had been remarked on. The consul general in Graz had reported to Belgrade:
With his rare intelligence, many-sided education, distinguished manner, his kindly dealings with the public, his serious and honest character; his knowledge of the Serbian, French, German and Italian languages, his firm will to work with the qualifications he has acquired so far, Mr Andrić offers the best guarantee that he will with time become an excellent civil servant, who can only be a credit to the diplomatic profession, and benefit to the state and our people.
Unsurprisingly, his career flourished until, in 1939, with war looming, the foreign ministry sent him as ambassador to Hitler’s Germany.
Andrić was not happy in Nazi Berlin, and when Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 he returned to Belgrade, where he refused to serve the puppet government or to accept his pension or to be published; he spent the years until the liberation living in a friend’s apartment under virtual house arrest. It was during this period that he wrote his first three novels, all of which were published in a single year after the Germans were expelled and a new government publishing house came into existence. The Bridge on the Drina was its first publication.
This extraordinary book constitutes the story of Bosnia in a series of highly dramatic episodes centered on the magnificent white stone bridge built by an early vizier. As a poor peasant boy in Višegrad, Mehmed Pasha had been wrenched from his home and sent to Istanbul as part of the annual tribute of Christian children, to spend his life in the service of the sultan. Through ruthless ambition and iron resolution, he had risen to his commanding position, and now, sent to rule over Bosnia, he resolved to build this bridge as a monument to his past and to his native land. The Drina was a crucial waterway separating Bosnia from neighboring Serbia—the West from the East. There had been no way across it except by inefficient and unreliable ferry until the bridge, in all its elegance, was built between 1571 and 1577, and it remained the main artery from “Europe” to “the Orient” until the railroad supplanted it in the nineteenth century. It was also the place on which the elders of the community gathered to discuss and determine the life of the town, and on which children played and young people met and courted.
The widely separated narratives that make up The Bridge on the Drina project a sense of Bosnian life that reveals its beauty and generosity as well as its nightmarish side. The building of the bridge by forced labor, under implacable overseers, was punctuated by fatal accidents and unimaginable cruelties, climaxing in the punishment of a saboteur who was impaled on a stake driven upward through his body from his anus to behind his ear and kept alive, raised high in the air, as a warning to the populace. “Turks, Turks…” he moaned, “Turks on the bridge…may you die like dogs…like dogs.” This horrifying scene—and it’s horrifying enough to keep you awake nights—is not there for its sensationalism but to reflect the cruelty that has seemingly always been a defining aspect of life in this part of the world.
There is the proud young Muslim woman whose father promises her in marriage to a man she has sworn never to marry. She cannot dishonor her father, she cannot dishonor herself, and after the wedding, as she is being carried over the bridge on the way to her new home, she flings herself off it to her death. There is the naive young soldier on sentry duty who is tricked into allowing a Serbian spy to cross the bridge and then kills himself in shame. The longest narrative of the book follows the indomitable Jewish woman who runs the hotel at the foot of the bridge, a benign establishment that provides food, drink, and good feeling (everything strictly supervised) to soldiers and civilians alike—until after many years she is caught up and destroyed by World War I, undone by history.
Travnik itself had for long stretches of time seemed impervious to the outside world, but in 1908 the Hapsburg Empire, with its dazzling modern army, annexed Bosnia. The Austrians carried out endless “improvements” to the town, and sent countless young men to be educated in Vienna, men who returned home filled with new ideas and standards and ambitions. But:
The older people still regretted that “sweet tranquility” which in Turkish times had been regarded as the…most perfect expression of public and private life…. Even that time-honoured and established life on the [bridge], that life of quiet conversation and peaceful meditations, simple jokes and lovesick songs between the waters, the sky and the mountains, began to change.
And then, in anticipation of future wars, the Austrians mine the bridge.
The assassination at Sarajevo sets off World War I, and the town and the bridge come under constant bombardment. When the Austrians are forced to evacuate, they explode the mines hidden in the bridge, leaving a gaping hole between the sixth and eighth piers, beyond which “the bridge once more stretched to the farther bank, smooth and regular and white, as it had been yesterday and always.” (It was restored after World War II.) Andrić chooses to end his novel on a plangent note. After the explosions, an old man, one of the Muslim merchants most esteemed for his piety and wisdom, stumbles from the wreckage of his shop and, dying, tries to make his way home. His final thoughts appear on Andrić’s final page:
Perhaps this impure infidel faith…might spread through the whole world; it might make of all God’s world an empty field for its senseless building and criminal destruction, a pasturage for its insatiable hunger and incomprehensible demands? Anything might happen. But one thing could not happen; it could not be that great and wise men of exalted soul who would raise lasting buildings for the love of God, so that the world should be more beautiful and man live in it better and more easily, should everywhere and for all time vanish from this earth. Should they too vanish, it would mean that the love of God was extinguished and had disappeared from the world. That could not be.
The third of the three wartime novels, in English called The Woman from Sarajevo but in the original known by the name of the central character—“Miss,” or “Miss Raika”—has a far narrower focus than the other two. It is a personal chronicle: the life of a woman who has been raised by her father to value only money; to amass it, hoard it, cling to it, and dismiss all other considerations from her life. When he dies, she is fifteen and practically alone, already on her way to becoming an isolated and almost deranged miser.
Her eventual war-profiteering and usury provoke the hatred of her fellow citizens, and in 1919 she moves from Sarajevo to Belgrade, where her obsession with money turns into a mania. When she discovers that a young man, the only human being with whom she has ever let down her guard, publicly makes fun of her gullibility and her weakness for him, she descends into a madness of thrift. She dismisses her servant. Only one room in her house is heated—“She is warmed by the thought of the shovelful of coal she had denied herself”—and she lives in semidarkness. Rather than buy anything new, she mends and re-mends: “In the formidable and unceasing battle against waste, spoilage, and costs, another victory has been won against odds, that on the great galleon of the universe, constantly threatened from every quarter, one more insidious leak has been plugged up.” She spends her nights roaming through her house checking on her hidden wealth and her barred doors and windows, gloating over the hidden paper money, the ducats, the American dollars. “Miss” is a character out of Balzac, and her story is told with Balzacian power, culminating in a death scene of such terror and verisimilitude that you can almost convince yourself that you needn’t bother dying—Andrić has done it for you.
The Woman from Sarajevo has for many decades been unavailable in any English-language edition. There have, however, been a number of English-language collections of Andrić’s short stories and novellas, for which he was most famous throughout his lifetime—they take up eight volumes in the complete Serbo-Croatian edition of his works. Around forty of these stories can be found in English, and they exhibit the same utter believability as his novels. Perhaps the closest comparison is with Chekhov, although the range of Andrić’s work is wider—as in the novels, he is embedding his characters and their lives in the realities of local history.
That history often goes back to the long period of the Turkish occupation of Bosnia. In “The Vizier’s Elephant,” set in 1820, a fearsome vizier has a spirited young elephant transported to Travnik as a manifestation of his power and glory, a creature hated by the town. The vizier kills himself on learning that he is about to be replaced, and four days later the elephant, poisoned, is dead as well and “lay underground along with the Vizier. There is room here for everyone underground.” Or the history may be of a young, innocent girl whom a vizier commandeers to be his concubine and who is murdered by a crazed functionary. Or the history may be as recent as that of Belgrade before and during World War II, as Andrić, in the long story “Zeko,” follows the life of a timid, inconspicuous man, a calligrapher, who is despised and crushed by his wife, a brutal woman with a “furious will to command” and their collaborator son, yet who dies working for the Partisan resistance. A quiet, noble life.
Andrić’s most ambitious short work, a masterpiece, is a novella called The Damned Yard that goes back and forth in time and in narrative voices. A young monk recalls the stories told by old Fra Petar, recently dead, and in particular his account of how, in his youth, he was sent to accompany an older monk to Istanbul and, through bureaucratic confusion, was confined in the great prison there, ruled by a terrifying despot and populated by a vast assortment of criminals and suspects. There he befriends a scholarly young man from Smyrna who had been absurdly arrested for conspiring against the sultan because he is obsessed by—and comes to identify himself with—the half-brother and rival of a sultan from the late fifteenth century.
This vivid account of a turbulent, constricted society is a perfect example of Andrić’s uncanny ability to make you feel that he has just happened upon a group of people and is impelled through the most urgent sympathy to reimagine their lives. In a collection of his pieces published posthumously, he explains that in the morning these characters
offer themselves, waken me and disturb me. And later, when I am dressed and sit down to work, characters from these stories and fragments of their conversations, reflections and actions do not cease to beset me, with a mass of clearly delineated detail. Now I have to defend myself from them and hide, grasping as many details as I can and throwing whatever I can down onto the waiting paper.
It’s as if he becomes a transparent medium through which lives force their way into our consciousness.
Andrić’s fourth—and final—novel, Omer Pasha Latas, has recently been published in English for the first time in a fluent translation by Celia Hawkesworth, who has been translating and writing about him for forty years. In her 1984 biography of Andrić, she explains that this book, although it has an ending, is not really completed; that it was written over many years; and that parts of it are sketchy and unresolved. These separate pieces “have now all been assembled,” and “the novel can now be read in what is basically the form Andrić had envisaged.” But when I first read Omer Pasha Latas, knowing nothing of its history, I found it fully coherent—as gratifying in its structure as in its texture. Hawkesworth is interested in themes and meanings, but Andrić is interested in narrative. This is a book about a specific historical figure: an all-powerful military leader—cunning, cruel, pitiless—who arrives in Sarajevo to suppress any potential resistance to the sultan’s rule.
The year is 1851, and the Ottoman Empire is trying to stem its long, slow decline. Omer Latas, a Christian boy from nearby Croatia, forswears his country and religion and eventually becomes the greatest of Turkish generals, dispatched to any region where resistance to Istanbul may be stirring. The novel approaches him from a variety of viewpoints—he is the theme that holds it together. We see him entering Sarajevo with his superb professional army, reducing the local dignitaries to shame, sending groups of them off in chains to exile. We also see him through the lives of those who surround him: his hostile and foundering wife, a beautiful Hungarian-born musician; his pathetic brother, whom he tries to convince to commit suicide; a talented artist who is brought to Sarajevo to paint his portrait; and finally the Austrian consul general, who hates and fears him, and who in long letters to an imaginary friend rages against his psychopathic lying. And then we see the departure of Omer and his army, mission accomplished, after a year of devastation. (The real Omer, 1806–1871, went on to great success in the Crimean War and further glories.)
Our sense of Omer is complete—from the sexual excesses (“so blind and insatiable, capricious and self-willed in his passion and lust, so focused on his desires and so steeped in them, that he no longer saw the women, girls and boys, the objects of his lust, as living people who had existed before he set eyes on them and desired them”) to his thoughts on the portrait he is sitting for:
Painting was not ordinary work, nor was being painted an unimportant business. It was a miracle. You were born again, came into being, grew, rejoiced, suffered, fell ill, grew old, everything, but you did not die, on the contrary, you endured in your transience, almost eternal, firm and real as no one who knew you saw you but as you had secretly always wished to be.
Unfortunately, although William T. Vollmann, in his introduction, has a few telling things to say about the novel (though not a word about its irregular birth pangs), he is far more interested in the complicated problems and issues of Serbo-Croatian history, politics, and linguistics. Once again, Andrić the writer is subordinated to Andrić the public figure, whereas to readers like me, Andrić is a figure only because he is so extraordinary a writer.
In his later years, Andrić made numerous trips abroad as a cultural ambassador. He also married a woman he had been involved with for many years—a leading costume designer who, as a Catholic, had not been able to divorce her first husband. His books were reprinted again and again, despite attacks on him from various political positions: radical Muslims, for instance, condemned him for being anti-Islam in his books—a bizarre delusion, considering how sympathetic he was to so many of his Muslim characters. Andrić was interested in people, not agendas.
He was, first and foremost, a deeply educated humanist—among his lifelong heroes, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Goethe, and Thomas Mann (and later Kafka and Camus). In his novels and stories he is never “literary”—modernism passed him by, or he passed it by. Although he wrote about the particulars of his especially isolated corner of the world, he was robustly European in the breadth of his knowledge, concerns, and attitudes. Possibly his world reputation further incensed the more vicious, xenophobic elements of his Serbo-Croatian surround. Long after his death in 1975—his reputation as his country’s greatest writer healthily intact—he remained the target of extreme vituperation. We learn from Blood and Vengeance (1998), Chuck Sudetic’s magnificent book about Bosnia, that in the early 1990s, with the terrible civil war raging, Murat Šabanović, one of the most ferocious Bosnian Muslim commanders, “made himself famous all over Yugoslavia by carrying a sledgehammer down to Mehmed Pasha’s bridge and pounding apart a monument” to Andrić. Then he “broke off the monument’s marble relief of Andrić’s head and dropped it into the Drina,” never to be seen again.
In an earlier version of this article, the population of Travnik should have been described as including Serbian Orthodox Christians, not Russian Orthodox Christians, and Murat Šabanović should have been described as a Bosnian Muslim commander, not a Serbian leader.