Imagine a Serbian little boy being taken away from his mother as “blood tribute,” an Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting soldiers from Balkan Christian subjects. Imagine the screams and the cries as the mother follows them to the Drina River, until the janissaries and the child embark on a ferry where they are parted forever.
This is the agony with which the book begins, and it made me wonder if I should shelve it for later. It felt too heavy to be read amid the volatile climate of the Philippine elections. But the writing made me want to read more, and I do not regret doing so.
This boy rose through the military ranks and became known as Mehmed Paša Sokolović, and in his later years, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. But the painful memory of separation never left him: “…he thought that he might be able to free himself from this discomfort if he could do away with that ferry on the distant Drina, around which so much misery… gathered and increased incessantly, and bridge the steep banks and the evil water between them, join the two ends of the road which was broken by the Drina and thus link safely and forever Bosnia and the East, the place of his origin and the places of his life. Thus it was he who first, in a single moment behind closed eyelids, saw the firm graceful silhouette of the great stone bridge which was to be built there.” Thus began the construction of the bridge over the Drina, at the part of the river where he last saw his mother.
The main character in this novel is the bridge. This bridge that has withstood over four hundred years of tumultuous history.
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Elif Shafak was a reading staple between November 2020 to January 2022 when I was steeped in my reading project to cover and uncover as many writings from places affected by the Silk Route; so when a friend learned that Elif Shafak had said that The Bridge on the Drina caused something in her to shift forever, this was enthusiastically recommended to me.
Of the nine books by Shafak that I read, the first one was The Architect’s Apprentice, set in sixteenth century Istanbul about a fictional apprentice working with the legendary Ottoman court architect, Sinan. The one commissioned to design the bridge on the Drina, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, is none other than Mimar Sinan.
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But authors are stories in themselves, and Ivo Andrić’s life is literally one for the books. Born to a poor family in Bosnia, he grew up playing on the very bridge he would later immortalize and earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. The years in between include two World Wars and an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.
The introduction to this edition claims, “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists… no anthropologist has ever reported the process of cultural change so sensitively; no historian has entered so effectively into the minds of the persons with whom he sought to deal…” I can only agree!
Andrić arranges the perplexing layers of this region’s history from the 16th to the 20th century into an impassioned song that constantly returns to its main theme — the bridge.
“…The life and existence of every great, beautiful and useful building, as well as its relation to the place where it has been built, often bears within itself complex and mysterious drama and history… Therefore the story of the foundation and the destiny of the bridge is at the same time the story of the life of the town and of its people…”
“Life…renews itself despite everything and the bridge does not change with the years or with the centuries or with the most painful turns in human affairs. All these pass over it, even as the unquiet waters pass beneath its smooth and perfect arches.”
There is an excess of lessons to be learned from this work, and much to be said about the exceptional writing, but what made me read on was the pervading refrain of the enduring power of art and architecture, and the comforting thought that no matter the course of history, life always renews itself.