Back in graduate school, when our idea of a really good time was studying abstruse social theory, there was one or another -ism that purported to explore the linkages between the large-scale forces of Big History and the local lived experience of individuals. I remember it as a very compelling piece of theorizing with gobs of intellectual merit, lacking only in any kind of applicability to empirical research. And so Big History and lived experience remained sadly disconnected, as least on my watch.
It turns out that we might have done better to just read Bridge on the Drina. Apparently the best known novel to have been written in the Serbo-Croatian language, Bridge is the story of a bridge, and of the town by the bridge, and of the people who live in the town, all through dozens of generations of Balkan history. Always in the background are the intricate ethnic relations of Bosnia and the destinies of larger kingdoms, through the long decline of the Ottoman Empire, the apex of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the crises of the early 20th Century. Seldom discussed directly, the big political picture nevertheless underlies everything that happens in the lives of the peasants, merchants, tradesmen, students, and soldiers who populate the novel. Ivo Andric, whose day job was in the diplomatic corps of the late Yugoslavia, is masterful at showing how decisions from faraway capitals alter the tenor of life for the people who live near his bridge, and also how forces of local tradition and isolation, and not incidentally the force of accumulated local lore, render the town and the lives of its people idiosyncratic and unique.
It is, I discovered after I’d read most of the novel, a real bridge! And the town, Visegrad, is a real town! Yet despite that, and despite the highly specific local setting, Visegrad serves as a kind of everytown, and Balkin history to an extent a stand-in for any history. Bridge on the Drina has a real universal quality, in one sense “about” a certain time and place but equally “about” what it is like to be a human in a town that is shaped and shocked by events from the world beyond its outskirts.
The writing style – I read the translation by Lovett Edwards – has a formal, measured Central European solemnity to it. It is not a book to get through in one sitting, but it is also a highly compelling read which kept me up too late more than one night, trying to get through “just one more chapter.” Violence and sexuality are, as in real life, driving forces throughout, but are discussed and described with a great deal of dignity and discretion. However, I will also warn you of a lengthy and detailed description of a torture-execution early in the book that ranks among the most ghastly, horrifying passages I have ever read.
Plot: A bridge is built. The centuries pass. Life goes on.
The narrative unfolds as a series of short stories and anecdotes. Most chapters include more than one distinct story within them, and many stories overlap the chapter breaks, yet the chapters provide a pacing and a rhythm that seem exactly right. Characters, families, buildings, large and small modifications of the bridge itself, and the enduring habits of the townspeople appear and reappear, weaving the book loosely together through time.
The book ends in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The bridge itself, however, has continued its journey through history. It was the site of horrific events during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Today, though, it is a World Heritage Site, and bookish people from all over apparently make the pilgrimage to integrate the bridge into their own life stories. Having read this book, I understand why they would.