The Bridge on the Žepa

Review

"The Bridge on the Žepa", published in 1925, is one of the stories richest in ideas which recur elsewhere in Andrić’s work. It provides a preliminary sketch for "The Bridge on the Drina", in a concentrated form. A Bosnian-born Grand Vizier in Constantinopole whose experience is similar to that of the great Mehmed Pasha, builder of the bridge on the Drina – he was taken, like Mehmed, from his native village at the age of nine – wishes to endow his native village with a building that will be enduring use. He is told of the regular destruction of the wooden bridges built over Žepa and resolves to have a stone bridge built. The bulk of the story consists of the description of the dedication of the master-builder, planning and building the bridge. Having made his initial plans and dispatched them to Constantinople, he builds himself a cabin and settles there, buying simple foods from the neighboring peasants and preparing them himself, spending the whole day investigating the river and its currents, examining the stone he intends to use, carving and sketching. When work begins, it is at first interrupted by a sudden storm that fills the river and sweeps away the preliminary structure. As in the "The Bridge on the Drina", the villagers interpret this as the will of the river, rejecting all human innovation. But the building starts again, the work stopping with the onset of winter when the master-builder remains in his hut, scarcely emerging, poring in solitude over his plans and calculations. Eventually, halfway through the following summer, the building is completed and the bridge emerges at last from the scaffolding.

The portrait given here of the master-builder suggests a devotion to an ideal conventionally associated with religious fervour. This gives his work a mysterious, almost supenatural quality. He works with single-minded, self-denying dedication to create something which will transcend the vagaries of the natural world and the ravages of a human time-scale. The ideas and the creative genius of the master-builder will long outlive him in his work.

In addition to the main theme – that the bridge emboides a complete statement requiring no further comment – there is another important idea. The Vizierćs initial desire to build something enduring in his native village is promped by his experience of imprisoment following a political upheavel in Constantinopole. The winter months he spent in prison brought a new thoughtfulness, a new awareness of the marrow dividing line between life and death, and a new gratitude for being alive and liberty. In prison, he remembered his native land and thought of the villagersć houses where his glory was frequently spoken of, without any realization of the price of that glory or other side of success. His decision to build the bridge was an expression of this new perspective.

The end of the story can be seen as a metaliterary frame as the narrator-writer tells how and when he decided to write the story: "This happened one evening when he was returning from the mountains and, feeling weary, had sat of summer when the days were scorching but the nights had a nip to them. As he leaned against the stonework, he noticed cool breeze was blowing in off the Drina pleasant and somehow unexpected was the touch of that warm hewn stone. There was an instant rapport between them. He then decided to write its story."