So I’ve been reading through my pile of 1970s paperbacks. The last one in the lot seemed different. While the book itself was a 1970s paperback (actually 1967, but who’s counting?) with all the production values therein, the text itself appeared to be a war book from Eastern Europe, or a novel in the Dostoyevsky tradition. The book was entitled The Bridge on the Drina–which made me think of a battle for that bridge. The author? Ivo Andrić.
I’d never heard of either, so I read the back cover. Turns out Andrić was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. That did little to reassure me. Nobel laureates have written some truly stultifying and ponderous works, and they were often selected more for ideological reasons than for actual literary merit (ask Borges’ ghost why he was never selected, and you’ll understand what I mean)… and Andrić was an official in communist Yugoslavia.
So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I set out to read this one.
No need. I am here to tell you that, on this particular occasion, the committee got it right (although Andrić was selected over JRR Tolkien that year, which I think, in hindsight, was a mistake seeing how pervasive Tolkien has become as a cultural reference point).
The title gives away the story–the book is about the bridge that crosses the river Drina at the town of Višegrad, in Bosnia. The thread that links the story together is actually the bridge itself. Characters revolve around it, and it anchors nearly four hundred years of Bosnian, Serb, Turkish and Austrian history. If you’ve ever read a James A. Michener novel, you’ll know how that works.
Characters come and go, their lives, their hopes, their loves and their dreams flickering on and off like a firefly as the constant stone of the bridge remains the rock that even the violent floods from off the mountain can never erode.
It is also the backdrop to tell of the turbulent political and colonial history of the Balkan region.
As a man who chronicled such things, the greatest of all Yugoslav writers was controversial everywhere after the breakup of the country into the smaller nations we know today. Banned both in Bosnia and Croatia, his work has only recently come out from under the cloud.
But the bridge is bigger than the pettiness of politics. It’s a character that you end up caring for possibly even more than you care for the humans who walk across its length. When it is mined and partially blown up at the end of the book, you will lose a tear or two to that damaged stone.
But, like the book itself, and the author’s legacy, the bridge is still there. Rebuilt exactly as it was in 1914, when its center section was blown up.
Earlier this year, I sat down to write a few hundred words at a pub in Oxford called the Eagle and Child. As literary pilgrimages go, it’s one of the greatest possible.
But now, I find myself wondering how difficult it might be to get to a little town in Bosnia to sit at the sofa on the kapia of a bridge that crosses a mountain river near the Serb border and write a few words, perhaps a short story. Perhaps the history of the stones could seep into my writing as well.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. He is unlikely to win the Nobel Prize (people who write monster books seldom do), but if he does, the book that will set him on his way is the literary collection Love and Death. You can check it out here.