Book of a lifetime: The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andric

 

My life took an irrevocable turn in 2001, when I visited the former Yugoslavia for the first time and fell in love with the place. That visit was rapidly succeeded by others, to the incomprehension of friends. The region divides people. Its distinctive mixture of gaiety and tragedy either moves or repulses. To me, what has happened repeatedly to the people living in the region, and ways in which they've responded to those man-made disasters, seems not a distortion but a paradigm of human experience.

Ivo Andric's 'The Bridge Over the Drina' forces the reader to recognise this. It has in common with the great 19th-century novels a huge cast-list and a recognition of the fact that the destinies of ordinary people are symbolic. Except that in Andric's epic these characters are not simply contemporaries, but follow each other through the centuries, as story succeeds story and tragedy chases tragedy. Despite its scale, what makes the book extraordinary is the tender insight with which it treats these individual lives, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish.

Written during the Second World War, when the author was under house arrest in Belgrade, this is a novel of longing for his Bosnian home, "the little oriental town of Višegard and all its surroundings, with hamlets nestling in the folds of hills, covered with meadows, pastures and plum-orchards".

'The Bridge Over the Drina' shows us, quite without judgment, how in "that strange human game which is called war" monstrous acts are committed and ordinary people are swept along – but that afterwards, for those who survive, life goes on. Andric's own career, which included serving as a diplomat, was chequered by the incursions of history.

My Balkan friends simply assumed that I had read this European classic, effectively the work for which Andric received the Nobel Prize in 1961. Eventually, I found the Lovett F Edwards translation and understood why the novelist is so admired.

The two great books that still best introduce British readers to former Yugoslavia are near-contemporaries: Rebecca West's 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' was first published in 1942, 'Na Drini uprija' in 1945. Their projects, though, could not be more different. Andric is intimately present on the page. Despite his own experience he resists the temptation to be melodramatic. Instead, he gives small town lives, and suffering out of sight of the great powers, dignity and meaning.

Fiona Sampson's 'Beyond the Lyric: a map of contemporary British poetry' is published by Chatto & Windus

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