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The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Harvill, 1994 320 p. Translated from the Serbo-Croat, Na Drini cuprija, by Lovett F Edwards. First published by Prosveta Publishing Company, Belgrade, 1945.

 The Bridge Over the Drina cover

Not many novelists could get away with an introductory passage describing a bridge. As if to show that there are no real rules for writing fiction this book begins in exactly this way. But when your title names just such a structure I don’t suppose you have much alternative. Then again while nominally a novel The Bridge Over the Drina, in spanning the centuries, cannot be anything like conventional and the book is more like a series of short stories, mythical or legendary accounts, or even anecdotes, linked only by the events in them taking place in, on or near the bridge. The legends include children buried amongst the bridge’s stones, the negro (though he was Arabic this is the word used in the town and so in the translation) half of whose body was entombed in the bridge as the result of an accident during its construction, whose ghost still inhabits it and the sight of which means death. Among the stories are those of the man impaled for impeding its construction, the severed heads mounted on its parapet after executions, another man’s ear being nailed to a wooden beam fixed to the central portion. The book is also a history of the bridge’s times and its location in Bosnia, with all that entails. Very few examples of violence are given on the page but we are treated to a description of the grisly mechanics of impalement (that curiously Balkan form of execution.)

The eleven spans of white stone are at Višegrad, erected during the height of Turkish power in the region at the behest of the Vezir Mehmed Pasha, who in his youth had been part of the blood tribute wherein sons of Christians living in the Ottoman Empire were taken away to serve as janissaries in the Sultan’s armies or as his administrators, some of whom rose to great power and wealth. (Vezir, rather than the more common vizier, is the spelling adopted here.) The town is inhabited by a mix of Christians and Turks or Muslims – these two terms tend to be used interchangeably though the latter is spelled Moslem throughout. Later in the story (and the bridge’s life) some Jews make up part of the town’s fabric. At the heart of the bridge is a kapia, made from two terraces dangling out on either side to provide a space twice the bridge’s normal width, which acts as a playground for children and a meeting- and market- place for adults. On the kapia “generation upon generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. …. Life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet none the less it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’.” The bridge is the “link between East and West, … one of the great and good works of man, which do not know what it means to change and grow old, and which, or so it seemed, do not share the fate of the transient things of this world.”

While various insurrections pass they mostly leave the town untouched. Things go along for centuries in more or less the time-honoured fashion with little but the usual human foibles to disturb the townspeople but after the granting of the Austrian protectorate Christians became more like the incomers in dress and behaviour, part of the mutual changes between the Austrians and the inhabitants. With the arrival of the twentieth century things change even more, the pace of life quickens, politics and news come into the people’s lives. On the saving in journey time the railway has brought, a Muslim man opines it is, “not important how much time a man saved, but what he did with it when he had saved it. If you are going to hell, then it is better that you should go slowly.” A notice pinned on the bridge preceding the annexation crisis of 1908 is greeted by the same Muslim with the pronouncement that, “Whenever a government feels the need of promising peace and prosperity to its citizens by means of a proclamation, it is time to be on guard and expect the opposite.” He later reflects that, “Lands and provinces, and, with them, living men and their habitations passed from hand to hand like small change,” and “the Turkish candle was burned out.”

In the aftermath of the crisis the bridge is mined by the Austrian authorities. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 the Turkish frontier moves from 8 to over 600 miles away. Events were, “looked on in the town with diametrically opposed feelings by the Serbs and the Moslems: only in their intensity and depth were they perhaps equal….. Those desires which for hundreds of years had flown before the slow pace of history could no longer keep pace with it but outdistanced it. …. All that had lain quiescent in men, as ancient as that bridge and equally dumb and motionless, now suddenly came alive and began to influence their everyday life, their general mood and the personal fate of every individual.”

Of the ear incident Andrić tells us, “In moments of general excitement something has to be done, something big and unusual.” Elsewhere we have, “Moments of social upset and great inevitable change usually throw up just such men, unbalanced and incomplete, to turn things inside out or lead them astray. That is one of the signs of times of disorder,” and “Hard times cannot pass without misfortune for someone.” In the Bosnian context, “The dark background of consciousness… preparing for later far-off times unsuspected changes and catastrophes without which, it seems, peoples cannot exist and above all the peoples of this land.” More generally, in an observation attributed to the Osmanlis, “There are three things which cannot be hidden: love, a cough and poverty.”

The assassination of Franz Ferdinand precipitates the final crisis of the book. “That wild beast, which lives in man and does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed, was now set free….. permission was tacitly granted for acts of violence and plunder, even for murder, if they were carried out in the name of higher interests, according to established rules, and against a limited number of men of a particular type and belief.” Serbs are again, as in Turkish times, potential enemies of the state. One of them, held hostage to the safety of the bridge thinks, “He had worked, saved, worried and made money. He had taken care not to hurt a fly, been civil to all and looked only straight ahead of him, keeping silent. And here was where it had led him: to sit between two soldiers like the lowest of brigands and wait until some shell or infernal machine should damage the bridge and, for that reason, to have his throat cut or be shot.” Reading this book is a reminder that in Bosnia the people seem always to live in interesting times.

The back page blurb states that The Bridge Over the Drina won Andrić the Nobel Prize for Literature. While under the impression that said prize was given for a body of work rather than a single novel the book certainly contains nearly all of human life: sex is only implied; but there is love – and death aplenty. It is a compendious account of what it means to live in disputed territory.

Pedant’s corner:- I haven’t seen troublous before but on looking it up it does have a slightly different meaning to troublesome, “like the eyes in their head” (heads,) scelerotic (sclerotic,) span (spun,) “waiting for the peasant woman and buying from them” (that would be women, then,) beggers (beggars,) beserk (berserk,) concorn (?) “behave as if was sober”, (as if he was sober,) handsomer (more handsome, surely?) “which will have have”, gage (gauge,) Skoplje (Skopje?) on pension (this seems more awkward than “on a pension” would,) “beetles than can be seen” (that,) “nor would see America” (nor would she see America,) “so that they could see only their heads and shoulders” (so that he could see only their heads and shoulders,) “on the slope … lay Alihodja and breathed out his life” (this reads very awkwardly.)

Tweed Walk from Peebles

The good lady and I were down in Peebles a few weeks ago and took a stroll along the River Tweed.

From south bank. The main bridge over the River Tweed at Peebles is dead centre here:-

This is from a bit further west looking west:-

Keep going west and you encounter an old railway bridge. This is from the north bank after we had crossed:-

The railway bridge’s arches have angled stonework:-

Looking back west from a bend in the river:-

The main road bridge over the Tweed at Peebles:-

Groningen from the Canal(s)

Like most Dutch cities/towns Groningen is built round canals. (Or they were built round it.)

This is an unusually wide expanse of water where at least two of them meet:-

I include the one below mainly for the flag on the prow of the boat in the picture. It’s quartered in red and blue, the quarters centred on a white cross with what at first I thought was a blue cross within. (I’d seen it at a distance flying on a house just outside Opende.) I worked out it was the flag of Groningen Province after seeing a different flag, blue with white diagonal stripes containing red hearts, which was obviously that of Friesland. On seeing Groningen’s flag closely the central cross is green.

There are lots of lovely buildings on the canal:-

The Martini Tower used to be the tallest bulding in Groningen. It still is for the town centre but a taller one now lies on the outskirts. It was very difficult to snap the tower from the boat. Street furniture kept getting in the way.

Or splashes on the boat’s windows!!

Another wide expanse of canal allowed this of the tower in the distance:-

This is the tower from the town centre:-

It has a sundial about halfway up:-

Another striking building:-

We were told this is the smallest house in Groningen. It’s the one in the right-hand part of the white building (and the right half of that):-

Interesting corner building here. Not to mention the statue of the kneeling figure:-

Many of the bridges over the canals in Groningen have to open up to allow the boats underneath. This is one of them:-

New Aircraft Carrier

We were along the Fife coast a fortnight or so ago; at Limekilns where there is a good view of Rosyth Dockyard and the Forth Bridges.

Currently fitting out at the dockyard is the new Royal Navy aircraft carrier – the one there won’t be any planes for once it is completed. Both bridges are in the background.

Kinlochleven

On our way back home we stopped briefly to walk on to the bridge over the mouth of Loch Leven at Ballachulish. The good lady bagged these two photos first.

Looking back towards Loch Linnhe from Ballachulish bridge:-

Loch Leven from Ballachulish bridge:-

Having time to spare and it being a lovely evening we decided to take the long way round the loch through Kinlochleven.

There used to be an aluminium smelter at Kinlochleven for which its own (hydroelectric) power station was required. As a result Kinlochleven became the first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity, coining the phrase “The Electric Village.” The smelter shut down in 1996. The photo below is of the power station outflow.

Hills (and bridge over the River Leven) at Kinlochleven:-

From the bridge above I could see a chippy with an Art Deco style frontage. The photo was taken from a distance so it was difficult to tell if the business is still going.

Situated on the outskirts of the village on the southern edge is the War Memorial; a simple Celtic cross on a stepped pyramidal base. Dedicated to the men of Kinlochleven who gave their lives in the Great Wars, 1914-18, 1939-45:-

Modern Glasgow 2

The first is engineering rather than architecture. The Clyde Arc – immediately dubbed by local wags the Squinty Bridge as it crosses the River Clyde on a diagonal. Also in the photo is the Finnieston crane – all that remains of the shipyards that once lined the River Clyde here.

Right next to the Glasgow Science Centre (see previous posts) on the south bank of the Clyde is the new BBC Scotland building. It looks externally like a giant shoe box. Internally it’s more interesting as anyone who’s seen television interviews given inside will know.

The entrance is on the west side and is adorned with BBC Alba as well as BBC Scotland. There is a largeish scuptural thingy here too on the right of the photo. (Squinty Bridge in background on left.)

This is how the BBC building looks from the north bank of the Clyde.

Just a touch along the south bank towards the Squinty Bridge lies the premises of STV (Scottish Television) part of the Independent Television network, ITV. This shows the STV logo at the access road (and the Finnieston Crane.)

This is a closer view of the STV building. Another shoe box, though smaller than the BBC Scotland one. The round building to the right was I believe once an entrance to a pedestrian tunnel under the Clyde. (There is a similar rotunda building where it debouched on the north bank which now houses four restaurants.)

Satellite 4

So. That was Eastercon.

The Convention hotel (the Crowne Plaza, formerly the Moat House) was hard by the River Clyde. It’s the tall building. The footbridge is called the Bell’s Bridge.

The bridge is in its swung open position here.

I met quite a lot of old acquaintances and made some new ones. Plus I bought two books.

The two panels I was on went well and I didn’t make a fool of myself (I think.) The one on steampunk had an unexpected extra panellist.

Yes, a steam driven dalek!

Well, a dalek made to look steam driven by fellow panellist Peter Harrow, a fount of information on all things steampunk. It was actually radio-controlled. The chocolate rabbit was a nice touch.

Small Bridge in Biggar

Between the War Memorial and the Art Deco hairdresser’s in Biggar, Lanarkshire (posts passim) there runs a burn.* Over it lies a nice arched bridge.

Small bridge in Biggar

And this is the reverse view:-

Biggar Bridge 2

*For those who may not be familiar with the word, burn is Scots for stream.

Bridge at Kelso

At Kelso there is a fine bridge over the River Tweed.

Bridge over Tweed at Kelso

From its parapet you get a view of Floors Castle in the distance. (You might have to zoom in on the photo though.)

Floors Castle from Bridge over Tweed

Musselburgh Bridges

No town feels complete unless it has a river.

In Musselburgh the River Esk runs through the town. I spotted three bridges there.

This first one carries the main road over the River Esk. The photo was taken from a point just down a few steps from the War Memorial.

Bridge over River Esk Musselburgh

This is a view of the other side of the same bridge. Nice arched spans.

River Esk and bridge

Looking upstream from near the bridge in the above photo you can see a second bridge. This looks to be of older vintage. The near bank had nice planting.

Second Bridge over River Esk, Musselburgh

(The third bridge was downstream of these two and very flat and boring, possibly a pedestrian bridge.)

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