As a way to stay connected to each other and share a love of books, my friend Lisle and I decided a few months ago to begin a book club. It is not actually much of a club, since it is just the two of us, but it has been a great way to regularly skype and keep up with each other. The first book that we read was The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić. It was first published in 1945 and Andrić won a Nobel Prize for his writing in 1961. The book tells the history of a bridge in the Bosnian town of Višegrad. Although the book is a novel, it is historically based and gives deep insight into a town and culture and how it develops over generations. The writing is remarkable and Lisle's and I's discussions were great. I learned so much more about the area of the world in which I am living and the strength of the people here. So I want to share a bit of what we learned and discussed with you, my dear readers. Lisle actually helped me write part of this post and I owe many of these great thoughts and insights to her! I highly recommend to read the book for yourself. Although beware, it can be a tough read and there are some very gruesome parts.
I believe the true strength of the book and its main purpose is to chronicle history so that the people will not forget. The bridge was built in the 1570s through great violence, and it bore witness to many more atrocities throughout the centuries as it watched over the town. Andrić writes at the beginning of chapter 21, "Never can that be told, for those who saw and lived through it have lost the gifts of words and those who are dead can tell no tales. Those were things which are not told, but forgotten. For were they not forgotten, how could they ever be repeated?" The history of the bridge is not a pretty one... this area of the world has been through war after war. However, many of the stories were not told... people wanted to forget, but in forgetting, history repeated itself. And long after Andrić died, violence continued. During the most recent war in the beginning of the 90's, the bridge in Višegrad was used as a place to torture and murder civilians. It was eerie to read the book, knowing that Andrić wrote the book long before the most recent war, but yet the cycle still continued.
Equally important to the chronicling of conflict is the humanizing way in which Andric narrates. His stories feature many different people with diverse points of view: Turks and Serbs, Muslims and Christians, men and women, young and old, villagers and outsiders. He captures the hopes and fears of each, and emphasizes above all their humanity. Through their stories, he reminds reader of the deep emotions and tangible consequences of conflict on a human level. In one scene, in the middle of a terrible flood, the Muslim and Christian leaders of the town come together and tell stories and sing songs until the danger has past, then separate again as they begin to rebuild the town. The unifying power of storytelling in this snapshot mirror’s Andric’s hope that human stories and the abilities to empathize with others would not allow people to forget.
As I have met with several different peace workers and talked to Croatians, I have learned that forgetting the past is still occurring. Croatians learn very different things about the war than Serbians and neither side seems to have the whole truth. One of the many peace projects happening in this area is truth-telling. Peacemakers are trying to get both sides to acknowledge what happened during the war in order that people will not forget, but will be able to learn from these mistakes. Only by knowing the truth and learning from it, can the cycle of violence will truly be stopped. But for now, enemies stay enemies. And the tensions that led to war are still there, right under the surface.
This is the reason I believe that The Bridge on the Drina is so important. We must acknowledge our histories and find the truth to be able learn and so that history is not repeated. This is why I am here. I am here to learn the truth behind conflict and thus learn practical ways we can spread truth and thus spread peace. And this needs to happen all over the world, not just here in Eastern Europe. The United States has also committed terrible atrocities. And in order to actually be a peaceful presence in the world, I believe the U.S. needs to recognize its wrongs. And as an American, I need to be a part of that.