The committee that awarded the Nobel prize for literature to Ivo Andric in 1961 cited the epic force of The Bridge on the Drina, as justification for its award. The award was indeed justified if, as I believe, The Bridge on the Drina is one of the most perceptive, resonant, and well-wrought works of fiction written in the twentieth century. But the epic comparison seems strained. At any rate, if the work is epic, it remains an epic without a hero. The bridge, both in its inception and at its destruction, is central to the book, but can scarcely be called a hero. It is, rather, a symbol of the establishment and the overthrow of a civilization that came forcibly to the Balkans in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and was no less forcibly overthrown in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists, nor do I know of any work of fiction that more persuasively introduces the reader to a civilization other than our own. It is an intellectual and emotional adventure to encounter the Ottoman world through Andric’s pages in its grandoise beginning and at its tottering finale. Every episode rings true, from the role of terror in fastening the Turkish power firmly on the land to the role of an Austrian army whorehouse in corrupting the old ways. It is, in short, a marvelous work, a masterpiece, and very much sui generis.