Gifts from Serbia

So, on the kapia, between the skies, the river and the hills, generation after generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. They entered there into the unconscious philosophy of the town; that life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet nonetheless it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’

In today’s culture of ‘internet-everything’, we are finding that our relationships are moving increasingly farther from the physical realm of flesh and blood, and ever deeper in to the dizzying void of the digital space. The triumph of social networking sites has seen meaningful and sincere communication – enhanced by those subtle bodily movements, honed and perfected over the millennia of our sociable simian ancestry that reveal enduring support, empathy, and intense vitality, and which have become a crucial factor in our psychological well-being – reduced to withered and generic statements (‘happy birthday bro’, ‘hope ur ok babe xoxo’) typed hastily on a person’s Facebook page redefined as the new and dangerously low benchmark of acceptable social exertion. How desolate. I realise I am about to say nothing new, here, but it is the paradox of social media as the facilitator of endless cyber connections to one another that makes us more lonely.

That isn’t to say that this removal to the digital space is a universal and monolithic movement, I’m sure plenty of people still enjoy significant relationships unhindered by the interfering-internet, I’m merely suggesting that this is becoming a very rare and difficult ideal to achieve. As such, when someone does indeed flout the current norms of social interaction by doing something more than just the bare minimum, it strikes a chord within. Time, then, to apply this to my own life (and aptly continue the theme of my last post)…

Before flying back to her native Serbia, a friend I made during my short time at Warwick surprised me with an unexpected parting gift: a bear hug (actually, this was very much expected), and The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić. Needless to say this was one of those moments that I shall forever treasure.

Yogolsavian writer Ivo Andrić's 'The Bridge on the Drina'

Yugolsavian writer Ivo Andrić’s ‘The Bridge on the Drina’

Written whilst Andrić was living in Belgrade during the Second World War, The Bridge on the Drina spans approximately four centuries, from the Ottoman empire to the Austro-Hungarian administrations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Throughout the 400 years of social and political upheaval, the one element that remains constant in the tide of narratives that describe the complex relationships of the people of Višegrad, ebbing and swelling as violently as the waters of the eponymous river, was the monumental bridge itself. This bridge (the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, to be precise) does not simply connect land cleaved in two by the Drina, but is for the bridge’s creator a powerful symbol of unified, healed divisions between himself as a young Serbian boy, and his estranged mother from whom he was taken as a child – a theme that Andrić progressively builds upon until it reaches national significance.

I must say, I found this novel a rather challenging read. Andrić (quite rightly) writes upon the assumption that his readers are au fait with the novel’s focus upon religious and political relations between the empires and territories that it concerns (my friend tells me that The Bridge on the Drina is often studied as part of the curriculum in Serbian high schools all across the country), but since I am in no way familiar with the complex history of the Balkans I perpetually had to resort to the internet for help, an action that highlighted my immense ignorance and induced a certain amount of guilt because of my blindness. The untranslatable words and Serbian/Turkish names that peppered the novel were a rather more happy challenge for me to attempt to pronounce, but again made me and my very English tongue feel rather foolish. The final challenge, and perhaps the only hindrance to my full enjoyment of the novel, was the translation itself; clunky, repetitive, and by no means accurate (there are plenty of misspellings and words that I cannot actually be certain are genuine), Lovett F. Edwards’ efforts to translate Andrić’s crystal clear literary style’ into English were not wholly successful.

That said, there were endless passages that I can only describe as truly haunting, and which, bizarrely, were made all the more evocative by the stark translated prose – I’m thinking of two examples most specifically, the first of which being an exquisitely melancholy myth, associated with the bridge’s construction, that tells of a mother’s anguish as her children are sacrificially bricked into the bridge, and a rather gruesome and lengthy description of a public impalement that takes place on the bridge’s kapia.

The children were walled into the pier, for it could not be otherwise, but Rade, they say, had pity on the on them and left openings in the pier through which the unhappy mother could feed her sacrificed children… In memory of that, the mother’s milk has flowed from those walls for hundreds of years

Brutal and beautiful, this novel is complicated and wonderful. Difficult, yes, but, I believe, an incredibly important novel. I am not surprised at Andrić’s being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his entire oeuvre, of which The Bridge on the Drina is the jewel in the crown. Whilst the bridge survives 400 years of war and peace and war again, is symbolic of healing painful personal separations, and is the linchpin in the functioning of Višegrad and facilitator of effective communication between the town’s hostile factions, for me personally this bridge is a simple symbol of an enduring friendship that could never have been expressed so frankly via a medium so fleeting as the internet.


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