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?

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter @heathermcrobie

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage