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

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad