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A Balkan Chronicle
on October 27, 1998
Readers who enjoyed "One Hundred Years of Solitude" will love this book, for while it is similar in feel to that masterpiece, it is broader in scope. Readers looking for insight into the labyrinth of Balkan history will find here a useful starting point. At heart, this is a book about civilization and its changes. It pivots upon the contrast between the small parochial existence of the quiet Bosnian town where the bridge is the central and everlasting feature versus the wider world of Balkan politics where Ottoman Turkey, Orthodox Serbia, and Catholic Austria-Hungary wage a centuries-long battle for political domination.
The book chronicles the bridge and the town for over three centuries. It is filled with memorable characters, soldiers, lovers, saloon-keepers, priests, and town leaders. There is the 19th-century schoolmaster who embodies the parochial village so perfectly. He is better-educated than most of the townspeople, but only slightly. This reputed wisdom gives him the arrogance to act as the town historian, a duty he fulfills by keeping a small notebook in which he fails to record historical events. Even the seminal affairs of 1878, when the region was transferred from the Ottomans to the Habsburgs, merits only a few lines in his notebook because he judges that these events are simply not terribly important. And that captures the essence of the book: events in the wider world are deemed unimportant in the village until they come, like the flood in the early pages, in a torrent of change and surprise.
Thus does the town evolve, isolated from, yet thoroughly buffeted by, the great historical affairs of the centuries. In the end Pavle the merchant finds that this myopic approach has led him to ruin. Alihodja, whose unique ability to articulate the impact of world politics on the lives of the town's provincials earns him an injured ear and a reputation as an eccentric, never quite realizes how closely his vision entwines his fate with that of the bridge itself.
The standard interpretation holds that the bridge is the symbol for the Ottoman Empire, resolute and everlasting, welcoming yet exotic, and built to standards far higher than any to which this little town can aspire. In the original title Andric uses the word for a Turkish bridge (cuprija) and not the standard Serbo-Croatian word for bridge (most). Yet at the same time, the bridge resists this symbolism. It is not a bridge from the past to the future, or from the village to the wider world, or between Christian Europe and Muslim Turkey. It is simply a sturdy stone bridge. While the uncomplicated lives of the townsfolk dip and yaw in full color, and while the ponderous events of the outside world roll on in inscrutable ways, the bridge remains unchanged. The true symbols in the book are the rich and detailed characters who live and die by the Drina river. Each has something to tell us, and none is superfluous. These characters describe for us the consequences of conflict and cooperation in a comfortable little town caught in uncomprehending suffering by its location along one of history's great fault lines. The bridge... the bridge simply spans the Drina, as it always has.