The Bridge on the Drina is the novel that brought international acclaim— as well as the 1961 Nobel Prize—to the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić (1892–1975). Written during World War II, this short novel is the best expression of Andric´’s singular vision of the Balkan region as the bridge between the Orient and the Occident, the East and the West. The Bridge on the Drina is part of a trilogy, all published in 1945, that includes Bosnia Story (Travnicka Hronika) and The Woman from Sarajevo (Gospodjica).
The Balkans is the historic and geographic name used to describe a region of southeastern Europe. The area takes its name from the Balkan mountains running through the center of Bulgaria into eastern Serbia. Under the formal guise of emphatic localisms, the novel bespeaks the universal condition of struggle and suffering. This human toil, however, generates empathy and solidarity that cross ethnicities, religions, and races. Andrić’s storytelling functions as the very point of human unification.
The Bridge on the Drina takes the form of a historical chronicle of Višegrad, a small town in eastern Bosnia where Andrić spent his childhood. The novel centers on a particular focal point in that community—a bridge across the Drina river, built upon the edict of the Turkish vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolli in 1516. Through the image of the bridge, the novel traces Bosnian history from 1516 to 1914, interweaving several narratives in the transgenerational depiction of a borderline town in which different ethnicities—Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, Muslims, Roma people, and Sephardic Jews—mingled and lived together, most of the time in peace. These diverse peoples reveal their struggles to conquer nature and survive in the turmoil of history. Throughout the centuries they forge a cohesive alternative history marked by a common cultural heritage, a shared mixed language, legends, anecdotes, and tales. The bridge and the river below it become the symbolic and dynamic representations of this human endeavor. More so, the bridge becomes the major character in this cross-generational tale. Its own history is emphatically that of an ethnic mélange.
In all his novels, Andrić is particularly interested in the characters whose ethnicity is marginalized or problematic or has undergone multiple historical vicissitudes. In The Bridge on the Drina such a character is Mehmed Pasha Sokolli, the Christian peasant snatched as a little boy by the Turks. Mehmed Pasha, one of many boys acquired in this forceful way, eventually becomes a Turkish vizier. Pained by the memory of his lost childhood and nationality, the vizier imagines the construction of a stone bridge in his hometown. This initiating story encapsulates the symbolic framing of the bridge. Spatially, the bridge is a meeting point metaphor, the location at which the diverse peoples get together and unite in its creation and protection. Temporally, the stone bridge is also a symbol of endurance of human creation as contrasted with the transient lives of those who have lived by it.
The novel is structured as a series of narrative-historical vignettes around the unifying character of the bridge. Each chapter relates a historical and personal event or an anecdote from the bridge’s construction. These narratives continue to the partial destruction of the bridge at the beginning of World War I. The stories span centuries and gain their meaning in interrelation: The legend about the stone builder who tried to prevent the bridge construction and finished his life impaled on its highest point gets refracted in the tale about a woman’s tragic escape from a loveless marriage or in the mysterious anecdote about gambling with the devil. The bridge functions as the organizational device that strings this whole series of stories or chapters into a novel and is therefore the very epitome of the activity of storytelling.
The cultural events expressed as narrative movements across periods of time are given different weights by the author. Whereas much attention is dedicated to the construction of the bridge (three chapters) as well as to the history of the 19th century (10 chapters) and the early 20th century (nine chapters), the 17th and 18th centuries—the historically monolithic period of Ottoman rule in the area—are covered in only one chapter. This imbalance points to the real provenance of these stories: They are preserved and continuously reshaped by people’s memory.
It is for this reason that some events in the novel acquire greater value and some—less picturesque ones—vanish in oblivion. In this way general history meets an altered history in Andrić’s novel: The historical records are refracted through and even censored by the unrecorded history of personal or local events, of legends, anecdotes, and stories. The perseverance of the story—bridge-as-a story—brings to the fore the very act of narration. It is through this activity, according to Andrić, that the human suffering and toil may still acquire an intrinsic value.
Widely recognized as belonging to the heights of South Slavic literature, Andrić’s The Bridge on the Drina elicits additional interest among readers in the light of the Kosovo and Sarajevo crises in the 1990s, including broader issues of geography, nationalism, and modern nation building in the region. Rich in evocative power, the novel is one of the best and most complex representations of the tumultuous, yet fascinating history of the Balkans.
Cooper, Henry R., Jr. “The Structure of The Bridge on the Drina.” The Slavic and East European Journal 27, no. 3 (1983).
Hawkesworth, Celia. Ivo Andrić: Bridge Between East and West. London and Dover, N.H.: Athlone Press, 1984.
Juricˇic´, Želimir B. The Man and the Artist: Essays on Ivo Andric´. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.
Vucinich, Wayne, ed. Ivo Andric Revisited: The Bridge Still Stands. Berkeley: University of California Regents, 1996.