Friday, July 1, 2011

THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA - Genocide and Literary Glory

This past week we spent four nights in a splendid corner of America - the coastal cities of Astoria and Portland, Oregon. Our first stop on the Interstate (I-5) was a chance to pick up a cheap paperback to read in the tub. I was anticipating a visit to the stacks of POWELL'S BOOKS in Portland, which is a mecca for devoted bibliophiles. The book I found was THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA , an unusual novel which spans a period of 350 years in the life of a bridge located on the frontier between a Muslim Empire and Christian Europe. The community of Christians, Turks and Jews all depend on it for their existence. There are no continuing characters, but rather a fabulous cast of residents, occupiers and travellers whose lives intertwine with that of the bridge at Visegrad, which was the legacy of an Ottoman noble who never forgot his humble origins.

My Summer reading kicks off with THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA, by Serbian author Ivo Andric. This 51 year old paperback was in pristine (ie. unread) condition, a $2 find in Tacoma, Washington. It provided light reading on my journey through Oregon, and even offered up answers to a few nagging historical questions. If you've ever wondered how those evil torturers of the Middle Ages (like Vlad the Impaler) managed to ram a fence post up a man's bottom and yet keep him alive to suffer, the bloody answer is here.

Since returning home from Oregon I've done a little research on the author and his novel, and it seems he constructed his epic on an immovable foundation of historical fact - the kind of details which are likely to draw me into a story. Consider the motivation of Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, the Ottoman Sultan who sent his engineers to build the bridge, and paid for the entire project from his own fortune. Though he had wars behind him and a rich sixty year store of memory to draw from, childhood trauma remained - "always the same black pain which cut into his breast with that special well-known childhood pang which was clearly distinguishable from all the ills and pains that life later brought to him." He wanted to rid his kin of a hated ferry on the Drina which operated at the whim of the river men.

A rare postcard, published in Visegrad circa 1900, depicts their beloved bridge, which was completed in 1577 A.D. Frequent flooding, including total immersion, was never able to damage the bridge, but three of its eleven arches were blown up during WW1 and five arches were damaged during WW2.

The Ottoman Empire required a constant supply of manpower for its armies and did not waste time with conscription. It was far easier to send columns of cavalry into mountain valleys to cull young Christian boys from the villages - a "blood tribute" for the Pasha in Constantinople. "The chosen children were laden on to little Bosnian horses in a long convoy. On each horse were two plaited panniers, like those for fruit, one on each side, and in every pannier was put a child, each with a small bundle and a round cake, the last thing they were to take from their parents' homes. From these panniers, which balanced and creaked in unison, peered out the fresh and frightened faces of the kidnapped children." The boys' mothers did, as mothers will do, begging and following the horse column for miles, some falling to exhaustion or the blows of angry soldiers. Most were stopped on the bank of the fast flowing Drina River, where they were not permitted access to the ferry. The Sultan, risen to an exalted human being, never forgot his origins and the experience of being snatched from his native village. He was haunted by the anguished face of a mother he never again embraced. In her memory he built a bridge.

IVO ANDRIC, (1892-1975) was a Yugoslavian diplomat and novelist. He is most widely known for his book THE BRIDGE ON THE DRINA, published in 1945 and made available in English translation in 1959. Andric was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961.

No Canadian reader should ever be daunted by a story set in Bosnia. After all, the Canadian Forces fought in Bosnia less than twenty years ago. Our Foreign Policy was fixed on supporting the Bosnian Muslims and our CF18s bombed the hell out of the Serbs. [For a take on the stupid mess the Canadian government invested in, see a 2008 video interview with retired General Lewis Mackenzie - WE BOMBED THE WRONG SIDE.] In fact our government still holds the names of CF18 Hornet crews of the Balkan deployment a secret, lest there be reprisals made against them or their families. The same cloak of secrecy has been invoked for the CF18 crews who are currently bombing the hell out of the Libyans. Ottawa has good reason to anticipate revenge attacks against Canadian fighter jockeys where they eat or sleep or live, as the Libyans have no ability to knock those jet aircraft out of the sky. .A German map of the town, published in 1911, shows the historic stone bridge across the Dvina, on the road to Sarajevo. It also shows the shorter, wooden bridge across Rzava and the "sandy tongue of land between two rivers, the great and the small." Note the presence of "Militar-Lager" or military camps overlooking opposing sides of the bridge, a reminder of its strategic importance. It was the site of a massacre in 1992, fueled by age old racism.

I usually find that when I immerse myself in a book, like I did with this one, a number of coincidences will pop up. 'Connections' are predictable and explicable when the mind is engaged. On Sunday night as I lay reading in a motel room in Astoria, I glanced at my wife who was sitting at the table consulting her iPhone. Behind her head I noticed that the massive Astoria-Megler Bridge which looms over Astoria and connects it to the north bank of the Columbia River. The structure filled the entire window, and I paused to consider how much that bridge contributed to the life of its host community. The next morning, as we drove out of town I spotted a restaurant we had missed in our visit; it is called the DRINA DAISY and sports the famous image of the Mostar Bridge on its signboard. We did enjoy meals at two other Astoria eateries - the SHIP INN and the SILVER SALMON but I will certainly make a point of trying the DRINA DAISY when I return to Astoria. It's a safe bet that the owners know of Ivo Andric's novel. I can't think of a better way to start up a conversation with them.

The Andric novel is still in print and the author would be gratified to know that he still inspires its readership. On June 22 the bridge at Visegrad made the news - BIG news. Construction of a modern town has just begun at the bridge site, to be named "Andricgrad" in honour of the Nobel Prize winning author. In addition, a feature film based on the novel is in development. The Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday Bosnian Novelist has town built in his honour .