Wednesday, March 29, 2006

'Bridge' Over Troubled Water: Celebrating an Unjustly Forgotten Literary Masterpiece

The "unjustly forgotten literary masterpiece" referred to in my grandiose post title is actually a work that, in my mind, could not be praised enough for its depth of feeling, wisdom and understanding of the human condition. It is, in its own way, a long love letter to a part of the world that has been torn apart over and over again -- like some figure in a classical myth -- by war, bigotry, ignorance and, it must be said, religious intolerance. It is also a vivid, compassionate and heartbreaking meditation on community, and could easily serve as an allegory for all of human history in its joys and sorrows. This novel, as has long been noted by past critics, more or less single-handedly won for its author the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, and yet somehow in our time, less than a half-century later, it seems to be almost completely forgotten. How could a book of such obvious power and significance for the human race be relegated to almost total obselesence in such a short time? That is a question I couldn't possibly attempt to answer here, although many knee-jerk responses come to mind, not the least of which is the simple fact that we as a culture simply don't place much value on reading in general anymore.

But to all you serious readers out there, anyone who still values and appreciates the significance of literature and its power to mold and shape our intellectual, moral and even spiritual lives (both as children and as adults), I have this urgent message, in case you hadn't heard: Ivo Andric's epic novel The Bridge on the Drina is without a doubt one of the most important novels of the 20th century, and deserves a place next to other modern national epics such as Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, Laxness' Independent People and Rushdie's Midnight's Children on the Great Bookshelf of Civilization.

Ivo who? The Drina what?

If that's your reaction to what I just wrote, well, I can only nod and admit that I reacted the same way when I first heard the novel referred to (when or where, I can't for the life of me recall now). As should be obvious by now to readers of TST, I am drawn to books (fiction or non-fiction) about other countries, other races and other cultures, because I believe that no one people or ideology holds a monopoly on truth, and that because we share a common human condition, we can all learn from each other's accumulated wisdom. I feel that my world and my consciousness have been expanded by reading authors such as Dostoevsky, Hugo, Marquez, Shusaku Endo, Tarjei Vesaas, Kafka, Laxness, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Wislawa Szymborska, and others that have already been discussed in this blog. If I happen to read about a novel or non-fiction work from another culture that seems to be highly regarded or is considered a classic, I'm almost certainly going to be interested in it, and in the author. Some examples of writers from other countries that I have heard much about and look forward to reading one day are Bruno Schulz (from Poland), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), and Ismail Kadare (Albania).

Regardless of where I may have heard about Andric's book, as soon as I was able to get my hands on a copy and begin reading it, I knew I was reading a world classic. There are certain rare books in which you can tell, even within the first few pages, that you are reading something that will stay with you for a long long time, maybe even for the rest of your life. This is definitely that kind of book. One thing that is interesting to me is that very often, when it comes to the kind of book I'm describing, it's very hard to actually put one's finger on precisely why the book is so valuable and rewarding: is it the complex plot? The vividly drawn characters? The quality of the prose? Usually it is all of that, yes, but it's also a case of the whole being so much greater than the sum of its parts. Literature is an art form, and like any art, its effect is more to be felt than analyzed. The ultimate aim of any true work of art is always the heart, not the head.

Some books strike you in an intellectual way, such as the one I am reading now (The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture by Shane Hipps). But some books grab you by the heart and don't let go, or they punch you in the gut, or both. In the case of The Bridge on the Drina, I can't think of a book that's more successful in terms of getting the reader to relate to and empathize with the people of a specific region -- people of not only different races, but different religions, ideologies, and generations as well. And we all know that this particular region of Eastern Europe, the area comprising the countries of Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Montenegro, is one that has endured almost unimaginable sufferings over the course of many centuries. Andric's epic of course brings us face to face with these brutal realities, yet it somehow still maintains a hopeful outlook, even though its central symbol (which is in many ways the protagonist of the book, the bridge itself) meets its inevitable destruction in the final chapters of the novel. How is this possible? It's possible because Andric is so skilled at getting us to know and care for the poor, longsuffering Muslims, Christians and Jews that inhabit the villages surrounding the bridge, that we quite simply believe in their inherent goodness and will to survive, no matter what tragedies befall them. Andric never shies away at all from the political, religious and racial rivalries and animosities that continue to threaten to undo all that has been built up in these regions, yet he penetrates far deeper beneath these layers and gets to the soul of the people -- the common ties that bind us to one another, whether we want to recognize that or not.

This is an incredible novel that deals with issues of great complexity, and yet manages to remain at heart a very human story. It covers several hundred years of history and touches on politics, religion, love, death, local mythologies and folklore, fear and hatred, acts of incredible self-sacrifice and unthinkable human cruelty. It vividly conveys a sense of place, love of homeland and the sustaining power of community. It justly celebrates the endurance and vitality of not only the people of Bosnia/Hersegovnia, but also of the human spirit. For this reason I am confident that it will long endure as a classic of world literature, and I hope that anyone who reads this post will seriously consider reading the book for themselves. I can guarantee that if you do, it is a decision you will not regret.

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