About five years ago, a friend whose book taste I completely respected told me about this book. He was so enthusiastic I knew someday I would read it, even though I had never heard of the author, never heard of the book, and knew nothing about Bosnia.
Who could have suspected that I would eventually be living in Istanbul someday, be familiar with Ottoman history up close, and have walked a historic Mimar Sinan stone bridge with my very own feet. Not me.
What a book! What an author! And what a translator! This book is a haunting wonderful memoir exquisitely rendered in time and place. A young Christian boy is taken to the Ottoman capital to serve the Ottoman Empire. He converts. Eventually, he rises to a position of advisor to the Sultan. The Balkan native decides to use his position to build a stone bridge designed by the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to commemorate the land he came from and to glorify God. The book "The Bridge on the Drina" is a fictionalized history of all that happened on that bridge over 400 years of village life.
We often assign metaphysical powers to grand urban assets like the Eiffel Tower, but this book made the reader cherish a rural stone bridge as a precious jewel that made life grander and more meaningful for all the villagers who come in contact with it. Could a man-made creation serve a nobler purpose?
Ivo Andrić is almost like a Balkan "Mark Twain" so great were his powers of observation about human nature, sometimes wryly so. You can not read this book without feeling he has an enormous love for humanity because he can describe people at their worst, their weakest, and best with such compassion and grace, it's impossible not to love his writing for that fact alone. I found myself writing down sentences within the book just to savor their genius later.
After I finished the book, I looked the author up on Wikipedia and I realized I had no idea while reading the book what faith he was because he wrote about the Christian and Muslim villagers with such insight you could almost think he had both faiths in his family. Ah, such is the Balkans.
Lastly, his patriotism moves me. Ivo Andrić gave all of his Nobel prize money to improve libraries throughout his homeland. He had an ability to make the whole world care about his little corner and love it as he did. I want to read everything else he has written.
What book has made you see an area of the world for "the first time?"
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