Ivo Andrić, the only Serbian Nobel laureate who lived in the midst of controversy: national symbol or Islamophobic writer

The writer Ivo Andric, author of “A Bridge on the Drina. © THE IVO ANDRIĆ FOUNDATION

Different times and nations, but the day is the same. On October 9, John and Sean Lennon were born, a few years apart; President Roosevelt authorized the creation of the Atomic Bomb; Argentine soccer player Jorge Burruchaga and Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro arrived in the world; “Che” Guevara passed away. In Spain, the day of the Valencian Community is celebrated, and about 130 years ago, the writer Ivo Andrić, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, was born in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Andrić spent his childhood in Travnik, present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, and attended high school in Sarajevo. During his adolescence, he began to have his first contacts with the national organizations of South Slavic youth, which allowed him to forge the ideology that would later appear in several of his writings.

After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in June 1914, prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Andrić was arrested and imprisoned by the Austro-Hungarian police for his closeness to these organizations, suspected of the plot that led to the Archduke’s death. Having no solid evidence against the writer, he was placed under house arrest that lasted much of the war, and he was released in July 1917.

After this episode, the future writer dedicated himself to studying history and literature at the universities of Zagreb and Graz. He worked as a diplomat in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, between 1920 and 1941. At that time he also served as Yugoslavia’s ambassador to Nazi Germany , but after the outbreak of World War II and the invasion of his country, he left office and returned to Belgrade, where he lived in asylum with a friend of his in a small apartment. There he wrote some of his most important works, including A bridge over the Drina.

"A bridge over the Drina"by Ivo Andric. Courtesy: Penguin Random House.
“A Bridge on the Drina”, by Ivo Andric. Courtesy: Penguin Random House.

Considered as Andrić’s masterpiece, this ambitious novel covers five centuries of history to narrate the tragic events of the Balkan region, where cultures and religions come together that, like tectonic plates, rub together and cause earthquakes. The plot takes place in the city of Visegrad (Bosnia), located on the banks of the Drina River. A long chronicle that accounts for the tensions and confrontations inherited from one generation to the next. Centuries and centuries of struggles, attempts at peaceful coexistence and destructive fanaticism.

Between 1920 and the year of his death, Andrić wrote nine books, including novels and short stories. In 1961 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, for the epic force “with which he shapes the motives and destinies of the history of his land”, as highlighted by the Nobel Committee of the time, which selected him among writers of the likes of JRR Tolkien, John Steinbeck and EM Forster.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Andrić described the country as “one that, at full speed and at the cost of great sacrifices and prodigious efforts, is trying in all fields, including the field of culture, to make up for those things that it has been deprived of a singularly turbulent and hostile past.

Until then, his works were only known in some European countries, then he became the fashionable author for several international audiences, who managed to access his literature thanks to the multiple translations that were made of his books.

After the Nobel, the author won several awards in his country, such as the Order of the Republic in 1962, the Bosnia-Herzegovina 27th of July Prize, the AVNOJ Prize in 1967 and the Order of the Hero of Socialist Labor in 1972, in addition to several honorary doctorates.

Ivo Andric (Photo taken from: Keystone France).
Ivo Andric (Photo taken from: Keystone France).

Andrić became the most prestigious writer in Yugoslavia. His reputation in Yugoslav letters, as highlighted by Marc Casals in an article published by ‘Contexto y Acción’, was built on his historical narratives, set in the centuries that saw the Balkans become part of the Ottoman Empire. “Although real characters and events abound, the result of a painstaking documentation effort, Andrić transcends the mere historical recreation to turn them into representatives of the human condition, in accordance with his idea that art begins “when the facts levitate”. The protagonists of his stories appear helpless in the face of the arbitrariness of power, the upheavals of History and the irremediable precariousness of existence”, he comments.

No other writer managed like Andrić to narrate the history of Bosnia, with its mix of peoples and religions, whose day-to-day life always oscillated between harmony and hostility. “It makes me sad,” the writer said one day, “that every day our ancient and strange Bosnia disappears a little more without anyone recording and preserving the dark beauty of life before.”

His work is an amalgamation of events, landscapes and characters. The reader gets to witness the stories of Ottoman rulers, artisans, Sephardic merchants, Franciscan monks, Serbian peasants, Austro-Hungarian officials, Muslims, and foreign diplomats. Everything he wrote constituted then, and still today, “an inexhaustible source of stories and accounts.”

Ivo Andric. Photo: Tim Pears, Bosnian Chronicle.
Ivo Andric. Photo: Tim Pears, Bosnian Chronicle.

Ivo Andrić passed away in March 1975, in Belgrade. One hundred and thirty years later, he is still one of the most important writers of the divided nations at that time. His work has been considered alongside the greatest and although he is not a very popular or renowned author in the Hispanic world, there is no doubt that his literature should and needs to be read, because only in his lyrics lies an important fragment of the history of that world before ours that we have not yet managed to fully understand and for which we continue to ask, in the hope of not repeating at this time the mistakes of that time.


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Ivo Andrić, the only Serbian Nobel laureate who lived in the midst of controversy: national symbol or Islamophobic writer