Andrić Grad: the broken bridge of the Balkans

Why Bosnia is spending 12 million euros building a town dreamed up by a novelist.

It seems almost too neat a symbol of the region's identity crises: one of the Balkans' most famous contemporary cultural figures building a town named after the most famous Balkan writer. But it's not only a symbol, laden as it is with implications. The plans for Andrić Grad are real, located by Visegrad at the mouth of the Drina River, the setting of Ivo Andrić's novel, The Bridge on the Drina. The main financial contributor to the project is film director Emir Kusturica, and it is expected that the project will take four years to complete, costing around 10-12 million Euros. The construction has already been met with resistance from victims of the wartime atrocities in Visegrad, and reignited Bosnia's divisions.

The legacy of Ivo Andrić fragmented in the fifty years since he won the Nobel Prize during what was then Yugoslavia. Andrić lived, at different times, in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb, and is often taken to embody the Rubik's cube of Yugoslavian identity: a Croat Catholic by birth, he favoured the (Serbian) Cyrillic script in his writing. While his historical novels are generally seen as embodying a Yugoslavian mosaic, after the breakup of Yugoslavia the successor states "inherited" his legacy in different ways, with Serbia most enthusiastically embracing Andrić as "theirs".

Some have since argued that his novels' portrayal of Bosnian Muslims contributed to the development of Serbian ultra-nationalism, while his juxtaposition of the Habsburg Empire as a more "civilised" occupier than the Ottomans denigrated the Balkans' Muslim heritage.

Then there is the symbol of the bridge, which, between Mostar and The Bridge on the Drina, has become the dominating regional metaphor. Marina Antić has written on how the elevation of Andrić as the most celebrated Balkan writer is part of a quasi-colonial western European viewing of the region: that the book itself acts, for west Europeans, as a "bridge" linking "us" and "them"; the Balkans lazily positioned as "bridge" between east and west. All of this echoes through in the construction of Andrić Grad.

Perhaps the most curious part of the project is who's behind it: Kusturica, the film director who's been hailed everything from hero to traitor and Milošević sympathiser. The trajectory of Kusturica's identity is well-documented, and a mirror to Andrić's - after his childhood with secular Muslim parents in Bosnia, with the breakup of Yugoslavia Kusturica claimed a kind of "Yugoslav without Yugoslavia" identity that, by the end of the conflict, some read as an apology for Serbian nationalism. Underscoring what many saw as his gradual retreat from reality, after the war Kusturica moved into his specially-constructed "ethno-village" Drvengrad, built as a set for his film Life Is A Miracle, with streets named after his icons: Maradona, Che Guevara, Ivo Andrić.

Kusturica is funding the construction of Andrić Grad in collaboration with Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Sprska, and this alliance is perhaps most disconcerting - the alignment of Kusturica's vision with Dodik, the man who denies Srebrenica was a genocide, amongst his other nationalist statements. This fuels fears by Bosniaks in Visegrad that Andrić Grad is part of a Serbian nationalist plan to "finish off what they didn't complete during the war". What at first sounded like a quaint architectural reconstruction of a novel potentially becomes stitched to the concept of cultural cleansing.

Andrić's tangled history, Kusturica's fraught political position, and the violent history of Visegrad layer over one another in the construction of Andric Grad. But the flipside of ethno-politics is always economics, and the question remains: in what world would someone spend 12 million euros building a town dreamt up by a novelist?

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism