A timeless saga of intrigue and conquest in the heart of Bosnia presents the struggle for supremacy in a region that stubbornly refuses to submit to any outsider. Andric's sweeping novel spans the seven years 1807-1814, when French and Austrian consul served alongside the Turkish Viziers in the remote Bosnian town of Travnik, distant outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Divided as the community is, Muslims, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Jews and Gypsies all unite in a common contempt for their visitors. Isolated in a claustrophobic atmosphere of suspicion and mutual distrust, the consuls and Viziers vie with each other, following the fluctuations of their respective foreign policies. When international politics permit however, they console each other as best they can in this harsh and hostile land.
The time is Napoleonic and the novel, both in its historical scope and psychological subtlety, is Tolstoyan. In its portrayal of conflict and fierce ethnic loyalties, the story is inevitably eerily relevant to readers today. Ottoman viziers, French consuls, and Austrian plenipotentiaries are consumed by a ceaseless game of diplomacy and double-dealing: expansive and courtly face-to-face, brooding and scheming behind closed doors. As they have for centuries, the Bosnians themselves observe and endure the machinations of greater powers that vie, futilely, to absorb them. Ivo Andric posses the rare gift in a historical novelist of creating a period-piece, full of local colour, and at the same time characters who might have been living today. His masterwork is imbued with the richness and complexity of a region that has brought much tragedy to our century and known so little peace.
The writer uses his native Bosnia as a microcosm of human society, stressing its potential for national, cultural and religious misunderstanding and conflict, and identifying the barriers of all kinds that hinder communication between individuals. Written against the background of violence released in these mixed communities during the Second World War, the novel now has renewed and poignant relevance.
Bosnian Chronicle, translated by Celia Hawkesworth in collaboration with Bogdan Rakić, The Harvill Press, London, 1992
For as long as anyone can remember, the little café known as "Lutovo's" has stood at the far end of the Travnik bazaar, below the shady, clamorous source of the "Rushing Brook". Not even the oldest people can remember Lutvo, its first proprietor. He has lain for at least a hundred years in one of the cemeteries scattered throughout Travnik, but everyone goes to Lutovo's for coffee and his name is still recalled and mentioned while so many sultans, viziers and beys have been long forgotten. In the garden of this little café, at a foot of a hill, a gentle secluded slope rises up against a cliff, in the shade of an old lime tree. Low benches of irregular shapes have been fitted together around the tree, among boulders and tufts of grass, making a place where it is pleasant to sit for a while and always hard to leave. The benches are weather-worn and warped by the years and long use- they have merged completely with the tree, earth and rock around them.
During the summer months, from the beginning of May to the end of October, this was by ancient tradition the place where the Travnik beys and other notables admitted to their company gathered, about the time of the afternoon prayer. At the time of day, none of the other townspeople would presume to sit and drink coffee here. The spot was known as "The Sofa". For generations this word had a clear social and political meaning in the popular speech of Travnik, because whatever was said, discussed and decided "on the Sofa" had almost the weight of a resolution of the counsellors at the Vizier's Divan.
On the last Friday of October 1806, some dozen beys were sitting there, although the sky was already overcast and a wind was getting up, which always meant rain at this time of year. Each in his own set place, the beys were talking in low voices. Most of them pensively watching the plat of sun and clouds, smoking chibouks and coughing tetchily. They were discussing an important piece of news.
One of them, a certain Suleiman Bey Ajvaz, had recently travelled to Livno on business. While he had met a man from Split,a reliable person, he said, who had told him the news he was now recounting to the others. They could not make it out and kept asking for details and making him repeat what he had already said.
"It was like this," Suleiman Bey explained. "The man simply asked me: 'Are you expecting visitors in Travnik?' 'Us?' I said. "No, we don't want visitors.' 'That may be, but you'd better be ready for them,' he said, 'because you're getting a French consul. Bunaparta has asked at the Porte in Istanbul for permission to send a consul, to open a consulate in Travnik. And it's already been approved. You can expect the consul this coming winter.' I treated it as a joke: 'We've lived for hundreds of years without consuls, and that's how we'll go on. In any case, what would a consul do in Travnik? But he persisted. 'Never mind how you lived in the past, how you're going to have to live with a consul. That's how things are. And the consul will find things to do. He'll sit beside the Vizier giving orders, watching how the beys and agas behave and what the Christians are up to, and keeping Bunaparta informed about it all.' 'There's never been anything of the kind; it couldn't happen,' I contradicted the foreigner. 'We've never had anyone meddling in our affairs and we won't let them start now.' 'Ah well, you see what you can do,' he said, 'but you'll have to accept the consul, because no one has ever refused what Bunaparta asked, and the Istanbul Government isn't going to. Far from it, as soon as Austria sees you've got a French consul, they'll ask you to take one of theirs as well, and then Russia will come along...' 'Now you're really going too far, my good fellow!' I stopped him, but he just smiled, the Latin bastard, tugged at his moustache, and said: 'You can cut this off. if things don't turn out just as I say, or very like it. 'There, that's what I heard, my friends," said Ajvaz, concluding his story, "and I can't get it out of my head."
Given the circumstances - the French army had already been in Dalmatia for a year and Serbia was in a state of constant rebellion - a vague rumor like this was enough to upset and confuse the beys, who were already very worried. They brooded and fretted over what they had heard, although no one would have known it from their faces and their tranquil smoking. Speaking slowly and indecisively, in turn, they tried to guess what it could all mean, weighing how much of it was a lie and what might be true, wondering what they should do to find out more about the matter and perhaps put a stop to it at the outset.
Some of them thought the whole thing had been made up or exaggerated to alarm them. Others commented, with some bitterness, that it was a sign of the times: there were such goings-on now in Istanbul, in Bosnia and the whole world, that nothing should surprise anyone and you had to be prepared for anything. Yet others consoled themselves by saying that this was Travnik - Travnik! - and not just any little provincial town, and that what happened to others need not, could not, happen here.
Everyone said something, just for the sake of speaking, but no one said anything very definite, because they were all waiting to hear what the oldest among them would have to say. This was Hamdi Bey Teskeredžić, a heavily built old man, whose movements were slow but whose gigantic body was still strong. He had fought in several wars, been wounded and captured. He had fathered eleven sons and eight daughters and had innumerable descendants. His beard and moustache were sparse and the whole of his sharp, regular face was sunburnt, covered with scars and blue marks from an old gunpowder explosion. He had heavy, drooping eyelids the colour of lead. His speech was slow but clear.
At last, Hamdi Bey put an end to the conjecture, foreboding and fear by saying, in his surprisingly youthful voice: "Come now, there's no sense trying to cross our bridges before we come to them, as the saying goes, or alarming people for no reason. You must listen and pay attention to everything, but you needn't believe every word straight away. Who knows what will happen with these consuls? Maybe they'll come and maybe they won't. And even if they do, the Lašva won't start flowing backwards: it'll keep on going the same old way. We're our own ground here, and anyone else who comes have come here intending to stay, but so far we've seen back of there's not even any sign of them yet. That fellow may well have sent a request to Istanbul, but that doesn't mean it's decided. A lot of people ask for a lot of things, but you don't always get what you ask for..."
Hamdi Bey uttered these last words angrily then paused, and, in the complete silence, exhaled the smoke from his pipe before continuing: "And if it does happen! We shall have to see how it turns out and how long it lasts. No man's star shines forever, and it won't be any different with that...that..."
Here Hamdi Bey started to cough, choking with suppressed anger, and so he never did pronounce the name of "bunaparta" which was in everyone's thouhgts and on everyone's lips.
No one else said anything, and that was how the discussion of the latest news was concluded.
Soon the clouds completely covered the sun and there was a strong, cold gust of wind. The leaves on the poplars by the watre's edge rustled with metallic sound. The icy tremor passing through the whole valley of Travnik was a sign that for this year the meetings and conversations on the Sofa had come to an end. One by one the beys began to rise and disperse to their homes with a silent gesture of farewell.
At the beginning of the new tear, tyhe Vizier unobtrusively despatched his more valuable belongings and then, with his Mamelukes, he left Travnik himself. The joyful, vindictive whisper which began to spread among the Travnik Turks could no longer reach him. The only person who knew the date of his departure and went to see him off was Daville.
The parting of the Vizier and the Consul was cordial. On a sunny January day, Daville rode with d'Avenant four miles outside Travnik. In front of an isolated wayside inn, under a bower weighed down by snow, the Vizier and the Consul exchanged their last warm words and messages.
The Vizier rubbed his chilled hands, striving not to let his smile fade.
"Send my greetings to General Marmont," he said in that distinctive cordial tone which resembles sincerity as one drop of water does another and which leaves a convincing and soothing impression on even the most sceptical listener. "Pray tell him too, as well as anyone else who ought to know, that I shall remain a friend of your noble country, and a sincere admirer of the great Napoleon, wherever fate and circumstances cast me."
"I shall not fail to do so, I shall not fail," said Daville, genuinely moved.
"And to you, dear friend, I wish good health, fortune and success, regretting that I shall not be able to be at your side in the difficulties which you will always have with the uncultured and barbaric people of Bosnia. I have commended your affairs to Suleiman Pasha who will be deputsing for me temporarily. You may rely on him.
He is simple, uncouth man, like all Bosnians, but honourable and trustworthy. Let me say once more that it is only because of you that I regret leaving. But so it must be. Had I wished to be a scourge and a tyrant, I could have remained in this post and subdued those empty-headed arrogant beys forever, but I am not like that, nor do I wish to be. That is why I am leaving."
Shivering with cold and ashen pale, in his black cape which reached to the ground, d'Avenat translated mechanically and rapidly as though he knew it all already.
Daville knew very well that what the Vizier was saying was not and could not be entirely accurate and yet every word touched him. Every parting arouses in us a double illusion. The person we are parting from, more or less forever, seems to us far worthier and more deserving of our attention, and we ourselves feel far more capable of generous and selfless friendship than we actually are.
Then the Vizier mounted his big sorrel horse, disguising his lameness with quick, sharp movements. His large retinue set off after him. And when the two groups, the Vizier's large one and the Consul's small one, had moved a little more than half a mile from each other, one of the Vizier's horsemen detached himself, like an arrow from a bow, swiftly reaching Daville and his escort who had halted. There he reined in his galloping hours and proclaimed loudly: "My fortunate master, Husref Mehmed Pasha, sends once more his respectful greetings to the esteemed representative of the great French Empire, and may his good wishes accompany your every step.
Daville rode with the feeling that he was returning from a funeral.
He tough of the Vizier from whom he had only just parted, as though he were something long since irretrievably lost. he recalled details from their many conversations. He imagined he could see his smile, the mask of light which played all day over his lips and eyes, extinguished presumably only when he was asleep.
He remembered the Vizier's assurances, right up to the last moment, of his love of France and regard for the French. And now, in the light of this parting, he analysed their sincerity. He seemed to understand the Vizier's impulse clearly, as quite distinct from routine professional flattery. Altogether he felt that he now understood why and how foreigners admired France, the French way of life and looking at things. They admired her according to the law of opposites. They admired in her everything they could not find in their own country and for which their spirit had an irresistible craving. They admired France rightly, as an image of universal beauty and harmonies, rational living, which no momentary obscurity could alter or disfigure, and which after every inundation or eclipse reappears as an indestructible force and eternal joy. They admired France even when they knew her only superficially, slightly or even without knowing her at all. And she would be admired by many, always, often for the most contradictory reasons and motives, because people would never stop seeking a better life and wanting more than fate had granted them. And here he was himself thinking about France, not as his native land which he knew well and had always known and where he saw both good and ill, but about France as the kind of wondreful, distant land of harmony and perfection one always dreamed about in rough, wild surroundings. As long as Europe existed there would be a France and it could not disappear, unless in a certain sense (that is, that is in the sense of bright harmony and perfection) the whole of Europe were to become a France. But that was not possible. People were just too different, alien and distant from one another.
Then for some reason Daville recalled an experience with the Vizier from that summer. The lively and inquisitive Pasha had always enquired about the French theatre and would like at least to hear something of what was performed in France, since he could not see the real theatre.
Delighted with this request, Daville had arrived the very next day with the second volume of Racine's works under his arm, resolved to read the Vizier a few scenes from Bajazet. After coffee and chibouks had been brought, all the servants withdrew, apart from d'Avenat who was to translate. The consul explained to the Vizier, as best he could, what a theatre was, what it looked like and what was the aim and meaning of acting. Then he began to read from the scene which showed Bajazet entrusting Amurat with the listening to d'Avenat colourless translation and the Consul's impassioned reading. But when he reached the discussion between the Sultan and the Grand Vizier, Mehmed Pasha interrupted the reading, laughing heartily and waving his hand.
"Why, the man doesn't know what he's talking about! said the Vizier reprovingly, but at the same time mockingly. "Ever since the world began, it has never happened that the Grand Vizier burst into the Harem and conversed with the Sultanas! It just couldn't happen!"
The Vizier had gone on laughing loudly and sincerely for a long time, not hiding the fact that he was disappointed and did not understand the purpose or value of such intellectual entertainment. And he said so openly, almost rudely, with the inconsiderateness of someone from a different civilisation.
Cut to the quick, Daville tried in vain to explain the meaning of tragedy and the aim of poetry.
The vizier waved him away implacably with his hand: "Ah yes, we too have all sorts of dervishes and pious folk who recite sonorous verses. We give them alms, but we never dream of treating them like people with a position and reputation. No, no, I don't understand."
It was only the old acquaintances Brother Julian and Des Fossés who took themselves to one side and embarked on a somewhat livelier discussion.
Since that very first meeting at Kupres, the Bosnian friar and the young Frenchman clearly understood and respected one another. Their later meeting in Gu~a Gora had only brought them closer. Both of them young, serene, robust men, they engaged in conversation and then in a friendly argument, with pleasure, and no ulterior motives or personal vanity.
Sitting a little to one side and looking through the misted window at the bare trees sprinkled with fine snow they talked of Bosnia and Bosnians. Des Fossés asked for information about the Catholic population and the work of the friars. And then he himself outlined his impressions and experience up to then honestly and calmly.
The friar saw immediately that the "Young Consul" had not wasted his time in Travnik, but had gathered a great deal of information about the country and the people and the work of the friars.
Both men agreed that the life in Bosnia was exceptionally hard and the people of all faiths wretched and backward from every point of view. Seeking reasons for this, the friar attributed everything to Turkish rule, arguing that there could be no improvement until this land was freed from turkish power and until Turkish authority was replaced by Christian rule. Des Fossés would not be satisfied with this interpretation, but sought reasons also in the Christians themselves. He maintained the Turkish rule had created in all its Christian subjects certain characteristic traits, such as hypocrisy, obstinacy, distrust, laziness of mind and fear of any innovation, any action or movement. These characteristics, the consequence of centuries of unequal struggle and constant self-defence, had passed into the nature of the local people and become permanent features of their character. They had sprung from necessity and under pressure. But they were now, and would continue in the future to be a great obstacle to progress, the negative heritage of difficult past, which must be eradicated.
Des Fossés did not conceal the fact that he was surprised at the obstinacy with which in Bosnia not only the Turks but people of all the other faiths too, resisted every influence, even the best, opposed every innovation, every advance, even what was possible in the present circumstances and depended on no one but themselves. he pointed out all the harm done by this "Chinese" rigidity, the way they cut themselves off from life.
"How is it possible", asked Des Fossés, "for this country to become stable and orderly and adopt at least as great a degree of civilisaton as its closest neighbours, if its people are divided as nowhere else in Europe? Four faiths live in this narrow, mountainous one meagre strip of land. Each of them is exclusive and strictly separate from others. You all live under one sky and from the same soil, but the centre of the spiritual life of each of these four groups is far away, in a foreign land, in Rome, Moscow, Istanbul, Mecca, Jerusalem, and God alone knows where, but at any rate not here where the people are born and die. And each group considers that its well-being is conditioned by the disadvantage of each of the other three faiths, and that they can make progress only at their cost. And each of them has made intolerance the greatest virtue. And each one of them is expecting salvation from somewhere outside, each from the opposite direction."
The friar listened to him with the smile of a man who believed that he knew how things were and had no need to have his knowledge confirmed orbroadened. Evidently determined to contradict Des Fossés at all costs, he pointed out that in view of the circumstances, his people could survive only the way they were, if they did not want to degenerate, to be estranged and destroyed.
Des Fossés replied that just because a people begins to adopt a healthier and more rational way of life, it needed not necessarily renounce its own faith and its own sacred objects. In his opinion it was precisely the friars who could and should be working in this direction.
"Ah, my dear young man," said brother Julian, with the affectation characteristic of people defending conservative views, "it's easy for you to talk about the need for material progress, healthy influences and 'Chinese' rigidity, but if we had been less rigid and opened our doors to all sorts of 'healthy influences', my parishioners Petar and Anton would today be called Muhammed and Hussein."
"With respect, there's no need to exaggerate or to be so obstinate."
"What can you do? We Bosnians are pig-headed people. That's what we're famous for," said brother Julian with the same pomposity.
"But, forgive me, why are you concerned about how you look to others and what people think of you? As if that were important! What is important is how much a man has of this life, what he makes of himself and his enviroment and leaves for his descendants."
"We maintain our standpoint, and no one can boast that he has forced us to alert it."
"But, Father Julian, standpoints do not matter, life does! A standpoint is in the service of life. And what does your life, here amount to?
"Brother Julian was just on the point of pronouncing some quotation, as was his habit, when their host interrupted their conversation. Brother Ivo had stood up. red from his good meal, he offered his heavy hand, plump as a small cushion, to all in turn like a bishop, and, breathing heavily and hissing as he spoke, he pointed out that it was snowing, that it was a long way to Dolac and they ought to set out, if they wanted to arrive by daylight.
The young man and the friar were sorry to part.
It was already the third week that the weather had been settled. As every year, the beys had begun to come out to talk together on the Sofa at Lutvo's. But their conversations were restrained and sombre. A silent agreement to rebel against the intolerable government of Ali Pasha was being reached throughout the whole country. This matter had been quite decided in people's hearts and now it was maturing process by his actions.
It was the last Friday of Nay, 1814. All the beys were present and the discussion was lively and serious. They had all heard the news of the defeats of Napoleon's armies and his abdication; now they were simply exchanging, comparing and extending their information. One of the beys, who had been speaking with people from the Residence that morning, said that everything was arranged for the departure of the French Consul and his family, and it was known for certain that the Austrian Consul would soon be following him, since he was in Travnik solely on account of the French. So it could be safely estimated that by autumn the Consuls and Consulates and all that they had brought with them would disappear from Travnik.
They all receive this news like the announcement of a victory. For, although over the years they had become to a large extent accustomed to the presence of the foreign Consuls, they were all nevertheless glad that these foreigners were going, with their different and unusual way of life, and their brazen meddling in Bosnian affairs. They were discussing the question of who would take over the "Dubrovnik Khan" where the French Consulate was now, and what would happen to Hafzadi}'s big house when the Austrian Consul left Travnik too. They were all speaking a little more loudly than usual, so that Hamdi Bey Teskered`i}, who was sitting in his place, would be able to hear what was going on. He had grown very old and decrepit, collapsed into himself like a dilapidated building. His hearing was giving out. He could not raise his eyelids, which were even heavier now; instead he had to throw his head back if he wanted to see someone better. His lips were blue and they stuck together as he spoke. The old man raised his head and asked the person who had last spoken: "When was it that those ... consuls came?
People began to look at one another and make guesses. Some replied that it was six years ago. Some that it was more. After a brief argument and calculation they agreed that the first consul had arrived more than seven years earlier, three days before the Ramadan Bairam.
"Seven years," said Hamdi Bey thoughtfully, drawing out the words, "seven years! And do you remember how much noise and excitement there was because of those consuls and that...that...Bunaparta? Bunaparta this, Bunaparta that. He's going to do this, he won't do that... The world is too small for him; there's no limit to his power. And our Christian pigs had raised their heads like barren corn. Some were hanging on to the French Consul's coat-tails, other clung to the Austrian, while yet others were waiting for the one from Moscow. Our rayah quite lost their wits. Andit came and it passed the Emperors rose up and they smashed Bunaparta. The consuls will clear out of Travnik. People will refer to them for another year or so. The children will play consuls and khavazes on the river bank, riding on sticks, and then they too will be forgotten as though they had never existed. And everything will be as it always has been, by God's will.
Hamdi Bey stopped, for his breath had given out, and the others said nothing in anticipation of what else the old man might say. And as they smoked they all savoured the good, triumphant silence.