BOOKS / Gaps too big for bridges: Celia Hawkesworth on the inspiring work of Bosnia's Nobel prize-winning novelist, Ivo Andric

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The Independent Culture
IF ANY single individual can cast light on the currents underlying the present catastrophe in the Balkans, then it is Ivo Andric, the only Yugoslav writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he did in 1961. Andric was born in the central Bosnian town of Travnik. He grew up in Visegrad, near the border with Serbia, and in Sarajevo.

Bosnia, its history, peoples and mixture of cultures, provides the subject for Andric's four novels and the majority of his short stories. In the 1960s, when his works began to be translated, people in the West had hardly heard of Bosnia. Today, many of even the smallest places he mentions are all too tragically familiar.

Andric's life spanned much of Yugoslavia's life as a single state: he was a founder member of the first united 'Yugoslav' youth movement, and his public life was dedicated to the country. Following the First World War, and the creation of the 'Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes' (later 'Yugoslavia'), he moved to Belgrade, where he joined the Diplomatic Service, serving in several European capitals and ending his career as Minister in Berlin, in 1939. In other words, Andric lived at the heart of the main upheavals of the 20th century.

His photographs show an expressive, knowing face. It is a face devoid of illusion or false hope, ironic and compassionate. The dignity, in the face as in the writing, comes from a clear-sighted acceptance of - rather than reconciliation to - the pain of existence. The measure and balance seen in the face are also the outstanding qualities of Andric's prose. His understated technique, that of the self-effacing craftsman, gives the reader a sense of involvement in the work and an awareness of being in the presence of rare wisdom.

Andric is perhaps best known for his panoramic novel, The Bridge on the Drina, an account of the fluctuating tides of history as they wash over the inhabitants of Visegrad, moving from the 16th century, when the bridge was built by Sultan Mehmed Pasha, to the First World War, when it was blown apart by an Austrian mine.

Andric's other great novel about Bosnia, reissued in English in 1992 as The Days of the Consuls (Forest Books, pounds 10.95), concentrates on the brief period beween 1807 and 1814 when French and Austrian consuls were posted to the remote town of Travnik. It represents the changing fortunes of their governments and their relations with the Ottoman viziers, against a background of the hostility that emanates from the local population of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslim Slavs and Sephardic Jews.

These two long novels were written during the Second World War, when Andric was living in occupied Belgrade. But the great majority of his works are short stories, several volumes of which have appeared in English, the most recent being The Vizier's Elephant (1962), The Pasha's Concubine (1968) and The Damned Yard and other stories (Forest Books, pounds 9.95).

While all of Andric's works are firmly rooted in historical detail, their precise, concrete account of Bosnian life is not an end in itself. The region's exceptional concentration of cultures offers scope for an exploration of the arbitrary but fierce divisions between human beings, the conditions and limits of co-operation. The world depicted in Andric's writing is hard and cheerless: each individual confronts his or her destiny in isolation. But what makes our position in this world so desolate is the potential for hatred and violence in our fellow human beings. Andric knew the mindless, vicious hatred that could be unleashed between neighbours who had for years lived peaceably side by side. And he knew clearly the paradox that this evil may be set in motion by appealing to what should be man's noblest impulse: loyalty to a nation or a faith.

Andric's distrust of organised religion and abstract systems of thought has its origin in his experience of the way such loyalty can be abused and turned into an instrument of hate. Andric was committed to the multicultural land that was Yugoslavia. He understood all too clearly the forces pulling it apart. But by facing these forces clear-sightedly, his work also conveys the belief that they need not prevail. Like his most eloquent symbol, the bridge, Andric's work bears witness to the contrary and equally constant striving for harmony and dignity, for what is most profoundly and enduringly humane. It offers a vital lifeline at this time when darkness and insanity has embraced the lands to which Andric devoted his life and work.