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Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (1950) by Simon Vestdijk

Book Review
The Garden Where the Brass Band Played (1950)
 by Simon Vestdijk

   The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is a coming of age story.  A dark coming of age story, with heavy doses substance abuse, prostitution and death.  Vestdijk was an incredibly prolific Dutch author, but The Garden Where the Brass Band Played is the only work of his to really penetrate the consciousness of an English language audience. Its modest success in English translation is probably due to the combination of the familiar coming of age narrative, the very readable length (312 pages in the edition I read) and those heavy heartbreakers that dominate the third act.

  What appears to be a coming of age tale about a boy and his music teacher in a provincial town in the north of the Netherlands ends up as something much darker.  You don't exactly get a feel for place- the action could as just as soon be taking place in a small town in England or Germany, but that too might contribute to the ability of The Garden Where the Brass Band Played to resonate with non-Dutch audiences.

  I feel bad for Dutch artists- they are poised linguistically between English language audiences and German, but they don't carry the appeal of the familiar nor the thrill of the unknown.  Compare the popularity of Scandinavian authors to that of Dutch authors, for example.  The Swedes thrive on a mingling of otherness and familiarity, while the Dutch seem to generate neither reaction.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Bridge on the Drina (1945) by Ivo Andrić

The actual Bridge on the Drina river after which the book is named.

Book Review
The Bridge on the Drina (1945)
by Ivo Andrić

  They don't give out the Nobel Prize for Literature for a specific work, rather it's supposed to represent the recipients contribution to literature over the course of a career.  That said, it's often the case that a particular winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature is represented in the English canon by a single work, representing the difficulties of translation and maintaining a market for works that aren't written in English and aren't about English speaking peoples.

  Andric is in the canon representing Bosnia.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, and The Bridge on the Drina is his representative work, so to speak.  Despite the fact  that the United States kind of fought a little war because of Bosnia a couple decades ago,  real facts about the area are hard to come by.    The Bridge on the Drina is more of a history than a novel.  Drina is a town on the eastern side of Bosnia near the border with Serbia.  Historically, it was part of the Ottoman Empire, then the Austrian Empire, then Yugoslavia.  This book covers the whole story through World War I, more or less.  The characters are Muslims, Serbs and Jews.  Each portion is another novella/short story about the people of Drina and the bridge more often serves as a plot point than an overarching metaphor.

  One of the aspects of Bosnia history that is occluded in the West, is the class issues between Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia.  At the time of the Ottoman conquest, the Bosnian monarch was a Bogomill- a kind of Manichean heretical sect of Christianity.   The land owning classes converted to Islam en masse, as did many, but not all, of the peasant class.  The Ottoman rule was tolerant, you couldn't really get anywhere as a non-Muslim but you were free to worship whomever.  The Ottoman's also used Bosnia as a hunting ground for white slaves, often called "Mamelukes."  White slavery was common under the Ottoman's, but it was also a well established path to high positions in the civilian or military aristocracy.  It is one of these slaves who is responsible for getting the bridge built in the first place.

   Anyway, the Bosnian Muslims were slavs as much as the Serbs and Croatians, but they were integrated into the Muslim world of the Middle Ages, and the Serbs and Croats were left to their own devices more or less.  So, in Bosnia, the Serbs and Croats were a kind of underclass, and the Bosnian Muslims fought for the Turks and owned land throughout the rest of the Ottoman lands of Europe.  And the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats all spoke the same south Slavic language. 

  The next chapter involves the Austrians moving in and taking over from the Turks.   This didn't make a terrific amount of sense- on the one hand, the Bosnian Muslims considered themselves party of the Ottoman Empire, loyal subjects, so to speak, who had no beef with their Ottoman overlords.  The Austrians, Catholics of course, were actively opposed to the ambitions of the other south Slavs- Orthodox Serbs and Croatians, and the Serbs and Croats hated the Austrians in a way familiar to anyone schooled in the rise of Nationalism at a global level.

   This book cuts off before shit got really messy in World War II, with the Serbs allied with the Russians, the Croatians with the Nazis and the Bosnians with the Serbs more or less.  But forty years of Communism did nothing to erase the grudges that built up during the better part of a millennium of economic and religious animosity.  Andric also includes the Jews as the third ethnicity of Drina, but even as the book ends their star is in clear decline and en route to extinction. 

  The Bridge on the Drina earns its place on the basis of the history.  The characters take a back seat to the historical perspective, most notably in that the characters change over time- it isn't the "story of a family over a time" but the story of a city and a people.

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