The Bridge on the Drina

February 29, 2012

Ivo Andrić, 1961

Ivo Andrić, 1961 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Yugoslavian diplomat Ivo Andrić died in 1975, but Bosnia and the Balkans honor him, as does the world, not only for his diplomacy but also for his fiction, particularly The Bridge on the Drina, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1961.

Set in Andrić’s native Bosnia, this historical novel spans three hundred years, beginning with the new wave of Ottomans in the late sixteenth century and ending with 1914 and the start of World War I, the life-time of the magnificent bridge that spanned the Drina River.  Covering this period with the precision of a scholar, Andrić narrates the parade of Turkish and Austrian powers that occupied this stunning mountainous region, but with the eye and heart of a poet Andrić populates this vast canvas with images of human beings so ordinary in their capacities for celebration and passion, so extraordinary in their capacities for brutality and courage.

Cover of The Bridge on the Drina

Cover of Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina

The novel begins with indelible images of the brutality that grows from the lust for power and land.  Though eventually a work of engineering art, its “eleven arches…perfect and wondrous in its beauty” (64), the bridge begins when a Turkish Vezir arrives and conscripts laborers, beating and even killing any man who resists, turning this town on the Drina “into a hell, a devil’s dance of incomprehensible works, of smoke, dust, shouts, and tumult” (29, 31).  Painfully aware that the bridge will benefit Turks, not Bosnians, workers grumble; some even plot to sabotage the bridge. Enraged by such covert resistance, the Vezir finds a scapegoat, a brave peasant who pays for his alleged sabotage by having his toenails torn from his feet, his chest wrapped in red-hot chains, and his anus pierced by a pike that runs out through the back of his neck.  Raised high on the emerging bridge for all would-be resisters to see, the impaled peasant “writhed convulsively” for hours before dying, just as the Vezir ordered (49).

We see the same brutality at the end of the novel, when World War I releases the “wild beast” inside us all that “does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed” (282).  That beast obliterates this town and even its seemingly indestructible bridge, as a bomb planted on a pier causes it to “crumble away like a necklace; and once it began no one could hold it back” (313).  Perhaps the greatest cruelty, the survivors have no home, no place.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

But between these bookends revealing our hearts of darkness, Andrić paints lighter hearts of those over these three centuries who take joy in simple pleasures, like fishing under the bridge (15) or meeting on the bridge to exchange flirtatious glances, to celebrate weddings, or to drink brandy and tell stories (19-21).

When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1950, he called on novelists not to paint portraits of despair; instead, he challenged writers to celebrate our strength, our ability not only to “endure” but to “prevail.”  As though accepting Faulkner’s charge, Andrić describes hearts capable not only of simple joys but also of endurance, as these Bosnians must suffer floods and droughts as well as invasions (76-79).  Following another Faulknerian challenge, to tell stories of the human heart “in conflict with itself,” Andrić weaves together numerous tales of such inner-conflict we can expect to find in any  century, such as Peter’s struggle with his addictive gambling (145-152); Fata’s torment over a marriage, having to obey her father or to obey her heart (104-112); or Zorka’s agony over two men, having to choose a good man who loves her but for whom she feels no love, or to wait for a lesser man indifferent to her passion (276-281).

Finally, Faulkner urged writers to uplift us with stories of human beings—however few—who show “compassion” for others and the willingness to “sacrifice” to relieve others’ pain.  Among several of Andrić’s characters who fit this description, Lotte stands tallest.  We meet her first in the middle of the novel, a beautiful young widow with “ivory white skin, black hair, smoldering eyes,” and a “free tongue,” and therefore enough brass to start a hotel in a patriarchal culture (177).  Far more than a shrewd business woman, Lotte serves as benefactress to many families, providing counseling and money for those whose lives have run amuck (180).  By the end of the novel, Lotte has “grown old.  Of her onetime beauty only traces remained” (257).  Unconcerned about her physical decline, Lotte worries instead about her ability to help others.  As the town has declined, Lotte’s once prosperous hotel has declined, too.  As a result, she suffers nightly over those in “hopeless poverty” that she can no longer relieve.  Though “tired” to the soul, Lotte still gives others what she has left, her sage counsel (262).  When we last see her, just before the bridge falls into the Drina, Lotte crosses bridge with a few other displaced old women—and with a “sickly child on a push-cart” (300).

Thanks to this Nobel Prize winner, then, no history of the Balkans can be complete that finds only cruelty in the human heart.

Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, c. 1970?

Photo of Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, c. 1970?; on display at his birthplace in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Religion & Spirituality

February 5, 2012

Today I rediscovered the difference between religion and spirituality.  Overlaps abound, of course, both rooted in a longing for connection to something larger than self, to an energy that intersects our illusion of time but lives beyond time.  But if one may draw inferences from the pages of history books, religion has too often been about buildings, codes of conduct, sacred spots—and therefore about disputes, exclusions, and executions.  Spirituality, in contrast, has always been about visions of unity, with that “energy,” yes, but also with Others, with critters, and with the earth, the garden that sustains us and honors our work.

Fellowship of the Lord's People

Logo for Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord's People)

I experienced such spirituality this morning, when I attended a service at the Bashkësia e Popullit të Zotit (Fellowship of the Lord’s People)** in Pristina.  Centered on the Protestant Christian faith, the Fellowship offered plenty of religion in the best sense of the word, as reflected primarily in the sermon on Revelations 2 and the charge to show love for Jesus by doing his work.  But I found myself moved primarily by the spirituality in the room, a communal unity engendered by guitars, keyboards, and singing, by story-centered pleas—offered in Albanian and in English—to support on-going efforts to relieve poverty and suffering, and by the blend of humanity—Albanians, Germans, Canadians, Americans, women and men, kids and parents, babies and elders, black and white—eating bread together in peace.

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910

Black Elk with wife and daughter, c. 1890-1910 (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

After the service, I found more such spirituality in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and in N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, works I will read with my Pristina students. Having interviewed Black Elk in 1930, Nebraska poet John Neihardt then wrote his book celebrating the vision of world unity this Lakota holy man experienced as a boy, a vision that empowered Black Elk to preserve his people from the relentless westward movement of the Wasishus on their “iron road” and on the mounts of the US Cavalry.  By securing his “nation’s circle,” Black Elk would also unite animals and people “like relatives”; he would then ensure that the “hoop” of his people blend with the hoops of all peoples, forming “one circle” around the “holy” tree of life.

Bringing his love and respect for his grandmother to her grave on Rainy Mountain, N. Scott Momaday offers an equally passionate vision of unity, focusing not on what might have been but on what was, the “courage and pride” of the Kiowa people, great “horsemen,” warriors, and artists who derived their power from the Tai-me, the sacred Sun Dance doll.  Kiowas expressed this spirituality not only in dance and in “reverence for the sun” but also in their love “for the eagle and the elk, the badger and the bear,’ for the “billowing clouds” whose shadows “move upon the grain like water,” for the Big Horn River, for the Devil’s Tower, where “in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through.”  And they prayed.  Momaday recalls the last time he saw his grandmother: “She prayed standing beside her bed at night, naked to the waist….Her long black hair…lay upon her shoulders and across her breasts like a shawl.”

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton

Devil's Tower, c. 1900, US Geological Survey, Photographer: N. Dalton (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Of course, Black Elk’s vision of unity never came true, and the Kiowas one day “surrendered to soldiers at Fort Sill.” Deprived of their Sun Dance, many spent the rest of their days with “the affliction of defeat,” tormented by a far darker vision of “deicide,” their nation crushed by another with “Manifest Destiny,” religion at its worst.


**Links related to the Fellowship of the Lord’s People: