October 16th, 2005


Ivo Andrić

Thanks, everyone, for your suggestions as to which Nobel laureate in literature I should try next. I may be able to return the favour by saying a little bit about Ivo Andrić, the Yugoslav writer of Bosnian Croat origin who won the prize in 1961, since I seem to be the only person of those who I've seen doing the meme who has actually read him.

I've read two books by Andrić, The Damned Yard, which is a collection of short stories, and Bridge on the Drina, probably his best known novel. The latter is a series of vignettes of the history of Višegrad and the bridge which links and separates the Serbs and Muslims of the town and their rulers, really great stuff once you get past the impaling in an early chapter. The former shows him at his best, in short stories; one in particular made a strong impression on me when I first read it - more on that in a moment. Also I picked up In The Days Of The Consuls, set in his native Travnik, when I was in Serbia a couple of weeks ago and it's on my "to read" shelf.

Andrić does have the typical problem of the guy from a country background who migrated to the metropolis at an early stage and developed a condescension towards his original environment. In particular, his frequent portrayal of Bosnian Muslims as primitive "Turks" doesn't go down well these days with the Bosniaks who fought a war to preserve their concept of a multi-ethnic state. I dunno myself; I grew up with people insisting that Northern Ireland used to be a "great wee place" before the Troubles, an earthly paradise where nothing went wrong. I heard a lot of that sort of talk when I was in Bosnia, and found Andrić a useful corrective.

The short story "Letter from 1920", which is in the Damned Yard collection, is about Max Levenfeld, an old friend of the unnamed narrator; they bump into each other unexpectedly while changing trains in Slavonski Brod, and then Levenfeld (who is a Sarajevo Jew by origin) writes to the narrator to explain why he is leaving Bosnia for ever. The climactic passage, describing the different mental time zones of the different people of Sarajevo, reads now like a chilling prophecy of what was to come. (Someone once told me that Andrić originally intended to give the story the title "Letter from 1990", but that sems to me too good to be true.) It should be read, of course, not as a definitive statement of the author's own views but as a portrayal of the world-view of a fictional character.
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Whoever lies awake at night in Sarajevo hears the voices of the Sarajevo night. The clock on the Catholic cathedral strikes the hour with weighty confidence: 2 AM. More than a minute passes (to be exact, seventy-five seconds - I counted) and only then with a rather weaker, but piercing sound does the Orthodox church announce the hour, and chime its own 2 AM. A moment after it the tower clock on the Beys' mosque strikes the hour in a hoarse, faraway voice, and that strikes 11, the ghostly Turkish hour, by the strange calculation of distant and alien parts of the world. The Jews have no clock to sound their hour, so God alone knows what time it is for them by the Sephardic reckoning or the Ashkenazy.

Thus at night, while everyone is sleeping, division keeps vigil in the counting of the late, small hours, and separates these sleeping people who, awake, rejoice and mourn, feast and fast by four different and antagonistic calendars, and send all their prayers and wishes to one heaven in four different ecclesiastical languages. And this difference, sometimes visible and open, sometimes invisible and hidden, is always similar to hatred, and often completely identical with it. This uniquely Bosnian hatred should be studied and eradicated like some pernicious, deeply-rooted disease.
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Not so much the description of Sarajevo, but the rationalisation for emigration, made a particular impression on me because at the time I first read it I was personally wrestling with the question of whether I would return to Northern Ireland after working in Bosnia. I had invested a great deal of my own time and intellectual capital in my political work with the Alliance Party, and I do love the place in general; and, as with Andrić's Bosnia of 1920, big political changes which would certainly open up many new possibilities were on the way (this was in 1997). But I felt increasingly that I couldn't go back, that having dipped my toes in the river of international politics I couldn't returned a life of fighting occasionally successful elections in Newtownabbey, leavened by the odd foreign trip; I wanted something a bit more substantial. Yet this feeling did feel like a sort of betrayal, and Andrić's story crystallised it for me. So it was an important point in the thought processes that led me to where I am today.

October Books 6) Accelerando

6) Accelerando, by autopope

The complete sequence of nine stories in Charles Stross's series about the Singularity And After originally published in Asimov's. As a diligent reader of Hugo-nominees, I had in fact read four of these nine stories before - "Lobsters", "Halo", "Nightfall" and "Elector", respectively nominated for Hugo awards in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2005, and being stories #1, #4, #6 and #8 in the sequence. Now we have all nine together between one set of covers, mildly revised and tightened up (so the author assures us). As I've said in previous reviews (linked to by year of nomination), I found them so full of ideas that they were a little difficult for me to absorb. Having them all together as a unit does help.

A few things jump out at me that didn't hit me on first reading. First of all, family is very important; the three generations of Manfred -> Amber -> Sirhan are faintly reminiscent of Abraham -> Isaac -> Jacob. Big differences too, obviously, but the "founding family" myth is there. Second, Charlie's language at his best is reminiscent of early Zelazny at his best. I've recently been reading Samuel R Delany's essay on Zelazny and Disch, and it's sort of weird - people were saying about RZ forty years ago what they say about CS today. And finally, I have realised that, of course, the "EU politician" mentioned in "Elector" is in fact Gianni from the previous stories, not (as I had bemusedly surmised) a completely new character meant to be in some way satirical.

Anyway, good stuff, headed for a decent result in next year's Hugo ballot I expect...