Ivo Andric: Bridge on the Zepa

Žepa is a small town in Eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, located in a picturesque but desolate valley. It was one of the 6 U.N. declared safe areas alongside Srebrenica where about 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered. The two towns lie on the banks of Drina and Žepa, which is also a small river that flows into Drina near the town in question. There isn’t anything extraordinary about the town or its people, except that they are a war weary and exhausted lot of people who have seen years of fighting stemming from religious and nationalist aspirations.

River Žepa flows turbulently much like the turbulent history of the tiny town that sits by it. The river must have seen more than anyone else and it gurgles downstream to finally vanish into the Drina nearby. Rivers in former Yugoslavian countries hold a special place in the hearts of people. Rivers literally become the dividing line between communities and most of the times; bridges are built grudgingly as the passage of men and animals is necessitated.

The grudging building of bridges is almost too obvious to be even a metaphor, for the communities have tried to build bridges between themselves reluctantly and just like the bridges would collapse into the white foamy waters of Žepa, these psychological bridges that connected the communities would crumble down too for no apparent reason and result in the dreaded Balkan bloodletting.

Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav Nobel prize winning writer had a special place in his heart for these bridges that dot the landscape of former Yugoslavian countries. His stories and novels usually speak about bridges that needed to built, bridges that were washed away in torrents, bridges that were bombed, bridges that were deliberately destroyed, and so on. The bridge almost becomes the fodder for dark humour, which is often required to understand Balkans and its trauma.

Ivo Andric prophetically wrote The Bridge on the Žepa, as though he knew about what was to come in that sleepy village many decades later. The story is certainly unremarkable, and centres around the construction of a bridge that refuses to stand over the River Žepa. The obstacles are natural, financial, psychological and materialistic, much like the reasons for the failure of building bridges among various communities of the Balkans.

Grand Vizier Jusuf and the mason from Italy seem to understand this perplexing reality of Bosnian society where it is almost impossible to tame hatred, a hatred that gurgles, builds into white foam and destroys anything that comes in its way. The bridge in the story does not belong to the Bosnian landscape. It is a foreign structure that has been built by a foreigner at the behest of a Bosnian expatriate living in Istanbul.

The people who attempt to make the village a better place are outsiders, much like the International diplomacy which has tried hard to heal the wounds of the Balkan nations. The bridge almost comes alive, and assumes a character of its own while never belonging to the landscape it has been forcefully built in. Its warmth seems unnatural in the chilling cold that emanates from River Drina and Žepa. The warmth of the bridge tries desperately to provide comfort to the ones who seek refuge, but somehow is defeated by the cold of the hatred that surrounds it.

Ivo Andric could never make sense of the hatred that existed between the various communities of Yugoslavia. He was hailed as a hero by the Croats, Serbs and the Bosnians and his writings remained a bridge that proved that stands as the white bridge of Žepa, conspicuous and alien. The Bridge on the Žepa is not just the story of the Balkans, but also the story of warring communities all around the world.

The ones that build bridges ironically do not enjoy the fruits of labour, like the mason who died before he could receive his wages from the Vizier. Building bridges between hateful communities is not only a dreary and thankless task, but the bridge itself remains alien and unnatural. However, it does help the communities to co-exist alongside their hatred, live a seemingly normal life, with the gushing hatred forever threatening to destroy the bridge just like Žepa threatens to destroy the mason’s nameless bridge.

Hatred may never cease to exist among communities until the freezing nature of nationalism, religion, politics and power cease to exist. However, the communities involved in this game of hatred must continue to survive and co-exist on either side of foreign bridges in spite of the home grown hatred. Unremarkable as the story may sound initially, it comes alive in an almost magic realistic way and shoves the bitter truth into the readers’ mind.

References: Ivo Andric’s Works

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  • Anonymous

    Oh I love this essay. Thank you. Yes, exactly what Heidegger meant.