“If we all had the opportunity, courage and strength to transform just a part of our imaginings […] into reality […] it would be immediately clear to the whole world and to ourselves who we are […] and what we are capable of becoming. […] Fortunately, for most of us, that oppor-tunity never arises. […] But if, by some misfortune, it does happen to someone, that someone finds that we are all merciless judges.” This passage from Omer Pasha Latas is a pretty clear summation of the eponymous protagonist, who lives hated and isolated in the prison of his self-made greatness. It also bears, quite sadly, on various pre-and post-Yugoslav nationalisms.
“I once asked him, ‘What do you feel like, a Croat or a Serb?’ ‘You know,’ he replied, ‘I couldn’t tell you myself. I’ve always felt Yugoslav.’”
The questioner was Milovan Djilas, who had fought the Nazis alongside Tito and afterward became a vice president of Yugoslavia. The answerer he described as “lanky and bony […] the career diplomat […] fettered by convention and tact” — thus a certain Dr. Ivo Andrić. In this context, tact may be defined in terms of what we refrain from saying. As it happens, Omer Pasha Latas is a work of brilliant evasion, in which most identities become bafflingly problematic. Who is Omer Pasha? “I couldn’t tell you myself. I’ve always felt Yugoslav.”
“Right from the war’s end,” relates Djilas, “the government was well organized and firmly in the hands of the Communists. […] Yet though the nation’s younger generation was fired with enthusiasm, its working class loyal, and its party strong and self-confident, Yugoslavia remained a divided, grief-stricken land, materially and spiritually ravaged.” In Djilas’s day, these divisions were most conspicuously ideological — although even then questions of nationalism could break through. After Tito’s death, their ethnic character predominated. In 1994, a Serb explained to me how to express them practically: “It’s easy. In my town all you’d have to do would be to go to where some Serb lived and throw in a hand grenade, then shoot some Croats. A small group of professionally trained people could do it. Then you spread the news and arm the survivors.”
“What do you feel like, a Croat or a Serb?” Once upon a time, when there was a Yugoslavia, its language used to be called Serbo-Croatian. Let me simplify: the Serbs were mostly Orthodox, their script Cyrillic, and they felt what has been called “the mystical Russian bond”; the Croats were predominantly Catholic, used the Roman alphabet, and sometimes turned toward Germany. Both of them claimed Ivo Andrić. In the interests of federalism their differences were repressed, both psychologically and politically. (I remember a Dalmatian Croat from 1981 who in a low voice identified himself as “Christian.” He said that he could and did go to church, but that his career suffered accordingly.) At great cost, the Titoists had reconstructed and maintained some kind of Yugoslav identity. That Serbs, Croats, and most other Yugoslavs shared a common language, or at least were presumed to do so, may be readily verified by the titles of prewar dictionaries. Their successor nations have now elevated dialects into new languages — Serbian, Croatian, Bosniak, Slovenian — which remain more or less mutually intelligible, although during the war I once or twice witnessed the solemn charades of nationalists communicating to their ex-countrymen through interpreters. In Yugoslavia, there used to be highway signs in both alphabets; nowadays one frequently finds one orthography or the other spray-painted out by the zealots of ethnic correctness. For that matter, on the back cover of this publisher’s galley of Omer Pasha Latas, you could read a biographical note in evidence of this bifurcation: “Celia Hawkesworth has translated several books from the Serbo-Croatian. […] She taught Serbian and Croatian at University College London for many years…”
Yugoslavia, then, was a failed attempt to unify separate and sometimes conflicting identities. Its 1918 incarnation was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In 1945, it became the Federative People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. In both of those names, other Yugoslavs went unmentioned. But the civil war that destroyed the federation was fought in the name of Serbs, Croats, and a third group, whose anguish would haunt the news for years: Bosnian Muslims.
Among the many infamous metonyms — the fall of Vukovar, the massacre at Srebrenica, the rape camps — of this hideously personal conflict, in which neighbors violated each other’s daughters and cut their throats, the siege of Sarajevo remains prominent. When I think of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, I, who never got to see it before 1992, remember the double and triple thuds of shellfire, and then rushing down the almost empty streets, acutely conscious of my neck; tall blocks of buildings, so many broken windows; another row of apartments flecked with bullet holes; journalists paying 250 American dollars to fill a gas tank; soldiers laughing and ducking behind their sandbags, kept company by a woman who was grinding coffee by hand. Andrić’s secondary school was here, and most of Omer Pasha Latas is set either here or in other parts of Bosnia. How unquiet was it then? Remember that Sarajevo was the place where World War I began. But the windows were not always broken, and women ground coffee in peacetime as in war. Then as now, one would have felt the overwhelming influence of Bosnian Muslim tradition. And indeed, Omer Pasha Latas is set in the period of Ottoman rule, about which Andrić appears to have felt, to say the least, melancholy.
He did not live to see the civil war. But during World War II, while he novelized in seclusion, other ethnic massacres of comparably sadistic cruelty had stained Bosnia.  Did he take a side? “I couldn’t tell you myself. I’ve always felt Yugoslav.”
From 1463 until 1878, Bosnia was a conquered province of the Turkish Empire, during which time, according to the historian Noel Malcolm, “the main basis of hostility was not ethnic or religious but economic: the resentment felt by the members of a mainly (but not exclusively) Christian peasantry towards their Muslim landowners.” In any event, the previous sentence contains two terms that though not ethnic were in the context nonetheless opposed: Christians and Muslims. In the 1990s, I frequently heard Serbs and Croats harp back on what had become the bad old days, referring to Bosnian Muslims as “Turks.” But was that just war propaganda? Even in Andrić’s “A Letter from 1920” we read: “Bosnia is a country of hatred and fear.”
So. “What do you feel like, a Croat or a Serb?” Why did Djilas not ask “a Croat, a Serb, or a Bosnian”? Indeed, Lovett F. Edwards, the translator of Andrić’s most famous book, The Bridge on the Drina, into English, assures us in his foreword to it that the author is “himself a Serb and a Bosnian.” (Incidentally, the title page of my 1977 copy reads: “Translated from the Serbo-Croat.”)
Why was this third sort of Yugoslav so effaced yet so visible in Yugoslavia itself? (In 1992, a Croatian Muslim assured me: “It was only the Serbs trying to dominate us who forced us into one country.”) Why did the ostensibly progressive Djilas call his language Serbian, not Serbo-Croatian? If you ask a group of ex-Yugoslavs about these matters, you will receive a discouraging plenitude of answers. But as you read Omer Pasha Latas, I urge you to keep wondering and guessing, for this novel is a hoard of shining questions.
Ivo Andrić was born on October 10, 1892 — almost exactly a century before the civil war. At this point Bosnia’s overlords were the Austro-Hungarians, whose architecture still colors Sarajevo. His birthplace was Dolac, “now in Yugoslavia” (the latter according to the 1976 edition of my Encyclopaedia Britannica). Or, if you prefer a slightly different dateline, he was “born in Travnik, Bosnia, on 9th October 1892.” That place also figures in his novels. What that region was like during his childhood I, who was never there before 1992, cannot imagine, but an English observer from 1897 has left us the following highly significant remark on Christian-Muslim relations in Bosnia: “It is strange that they should bear so little hatred to their former oppressors, and the explanation lies probably in the fact that they were all of the same race.”
More necessary but insufficient desiderata: He went to school in Sarajevo, and also in Višegrad, the setting of The Bridge on the Drina. From 1919 until 1941, he was a diplomat. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961 and died on March 13, 1975, in Beograd, which was first the capital of Yugoslavia and then the capital of the Serbian Republic. As one post–civil war Serbian edition of his selected short stories complacently remarks, “his Belgrade funeral was attended by 10,000 people.” Back to the Britannica: “It was his native province, with its wealth of ethnic types, that provided the themes and psychological studies to be found in his works.”
In Malcolm’s history of Bosnia, we read that sometime around 1907 to 1910, the young man “presided over” a student group called “the Croat-Serb or Serb-Croat or Yugoslav Progressive Movement.” In name, at least, this hardly sounds Greater Serbian. But neither does it sound Bosniak. Nor does it have an Austro-Hungarian ring. The translator of The Bridge on the Drina writes: “As other gifted students of his race and time, and as his own students in The Bridge on the Drina, he belonged to the National Revolutionary Youth Organization, and experienced the customary cycle of persecution and arrest.” The Britannica works in this episode equally blandly: “His reputation was established with Ex Ponto (1918), a contemplative, lyrical prose work written during his internment by Austro-Hungarian authorities for nationalistic political activities during World War I.” Meanwhile, continuing to claim him as a native son, that Serbian edition of stories recounts the same event thus: “He was imprisoned for three years during World War I for his involvement in the Young Bosnia Movement which was implicated in the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand in Sarajevo.” I have been told that the archduke’s killer, Gavrilo Princip, yearned for Greater Serbia. Or did he? Princip has also been called a “Slav nationalist,” which may or may not be the same thing. In Sarajevo, the commemoration simply reads: “Here, in this historic spot, Gavrilo Princip was the initiator of Liberty on the day of St. Vitus, the 28th of June, 1914.”
At any rate, Andrić, along with many others, was arrested almost immediately after the assassination and kept on ice until the general amnesty of 1917. Two years later, as I said, he entered the diplomatic service.
In 1924, he received his doctorate in the Austrian city of Graz. (Per Lovett Edwards, “Of a poor artisan family, he made his way largely through his own ability.”) His thesis evaluated “The Development of the Spiritual Life of Bosnia Under the Influence of Turkish Sovereignty.” What conclusions did it come to? The introduction to that 1977 printing of The Bridge on the Drina contents itself by blandly asserting that “the solid and precise information that underlies” the novel “was thus systemically built up through academic study.” But Malcolm’s history of Bosnia (published in 1994) labels the work “an expression of blind prejudice,” in evidence of which we are given this unfortunate sentence: “The influence of Turkish rule in Bosnia was absolutely negative.”
The reporter Fouad Ajami, who visited Yugoslavia’s bleeding ground in the same year, quoted the same sentence in evidence of Andrić’s “great dread of Islam in the Balkans, his allergy to the four centuries of Ottoman rule in Bosnia.” (By then a commander of Sarajevo irregulars had assured me: “They’re only terrorists now. They were Serbs. Now they’re not Serbs. There are no more legitimate Serbs.”) Meanwhile, Ajami compounded the accusation: “He was anxious to cover up his tracks. […] [He] had been ambassador of (Royal) Yugoslavia to the Third Reich at the time of the signing of the Tripartite Pact; and he was there in Vienna in March 1941, when Yugoslavia capitulated and joined the Axis powers.”
The unfairness of blaming Andrić for being Yugoslavia’s representative to Berlin is obvious. Someone had to try, however vainly, to delay or mitigate the forthcoming oppression, when, as Drina’s translator puts it, “Yugoslavia was desperately playing for time, hoping to postpone the invasion of Hitler and at the same time consolidate her forces to resist it when it inevitably came. I recall waiting tensely in Belgrade for Dr. Andrić to return from Berlin, the one sure sign that an invasion was immediate. He came back only a few hours before the first bombs fell on Belgrade.”
I do grant that “he was anxious to cover up his tracks.” Not only had he treated with Berlin; he’d also stood in for the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, whose memory could not but be obnoxious to the Titoists. In 1951, when a certain government-sponsored historical exhibition was about to open, Andrić learned that among other items would be a photograph of the signing of the Tripartite Pact, in which he could be seen “straight and tall, in full dress, in all his majesty,” right behind the Third Reich’s bullying plenipotentiary Joachim von Ribbentrop, who would meet the noose at Nuremberg for his part in Nazi war crimes. (About the pact we read: “Hitler’s bribe [to Yugoslavia] was the offer of Salonika, and it was taken.”) And so the anxious Andrić of 1951 entreated Djilas, “with a bitter, even savage, twist to his lips,” to be cut out of the picture. Djilas picked up the phone, and the army obligingly excised the entire photo. Had the novelist been a fascist collaborator, the Titoists would surely have stood him against a wall. On the contrary, Djilas remarks that in 1945, “I admired Andrić’s steadfast refusal to deal on any terms with Nedrić’s Quisling regime.”
And so I would discount a footnoted rumor, which “may simply have been propaganda,” that in 1944 “several Serbian writers, including Ivo Andrić […] were ready to join the Chetniks in the mountains.” These latter were anticommunist insurgents, who soon decided that Tito’s bunch were worse than the Nazis, with whom they accordingly made local devil’s deals. The Allies withdrew support, and at the end of the war, the Chetniks’ leader was shot in Belgrade. These would not have been comfortable companions for our tactful, cautious, lanky diplomat.
Why those innuendoes against him? Given the complex antipathies of the Balkans, was it enough to be hated that he was a great writer? Did his comment that “the influence of Turkish rule in Bosnia was absolutely negative” sufficiently damn him? Did his novels bear a discernible anti-Muslim taint? Or was there more to criticize?
Some years after saving Andrić from his embarrassment about the Tripartite Pact, Djilas began openly disagreeing with Tito. Having resigned from the party, with prison and loss of civil rights on the horizon, he asked Andrić for a professional reading of his memoir of Montenegrin childhood, Land Without Justice (which, like his better-known Wartime, I strongly recommend). Andrić replied: “It’s awkward for me […] I’m a party member.” One may well infer a trace of ordinary human resentment in the rejected party’s summation: “As far as I know, he never harmed a soul, though I cannot boast of his having done anyone any good either…”
In its entry on Yugoslavia, the 1976 Britannica concludes: “There are […] only two really major contemporary figures: Ivo Andrić, the Nobel Prize winner in 1961, is a prose master — best known for his Bridge on the Drina (1945) — whose works, as the Nobel committee noted, have been characterized by ‘epic force,’ great compassion, and clarity of style. The other is Miroslav Krleža, a satirist whose [works] […] foreshadow the themes of modern existentialism.”
Djilas again: “Andrić liked living and working in peace. […] His [official] greetings and toasts were far more flattering than Krleža’s, precisely because Andrić was an alien fitting himself into a new situation […] Andrić was simply an opportunist — but not a simple opportunist.”
Yes, he must have been an alien, for his characters are conspicuous in their alienage. Consider, for instance, in Drina, the Christian boy from Višegrad who in 1516 was wrested from his parents for the Turkish “tribute of blood,” and thus “changed his way of life, his faith, his name and his country.” In short, he grew into an alien opportunist — and eventually became one of the sultan’s great viziers. All the while he never escaped a “black pain which cut into his breast with that special well-known childhood pang.” And so he brought into being the eponymous bridge on the Drina to serve his lost home at Višegrad.
To be an alien is to live between — and one longish pre–civil war (1974) history of the Habsburg Empire considers that Andrić “represents a bridge between imperial and royal Habsburg and future Yugoslav Bosnia. Although he portrayed the imperial administration of Bosnia with great sensitivity and knowledge, he […] [was] outwardly directed toward Serbia.” It might be equally appropriate to call him inwardly directed toward the Ottoman culture of his childhood. Let us temporarily set aside his hypothetical political sympathies and consider him as the great literary master that he is.
Faulkner could utter foolish provocations about race war, but only an ideologue would therefore dismiss his magnificent novels and stories about the tragically echoing ambiguities of race relations in the Deep South. Indeed, Andrić’s more slender corpus is as complex and subtle as Faulkner’s. To my mind, his supreme achievement is the understated Bosnian Chronicle, but the more crowd-pleasing Drina likewise veils his reductionist “absolutely negative” judgment of the Ottomans in a brilliant-colored web of nuance. Whatever one might think of the long Turkish occupation of Bosnia, with its gifts and cruelties, nuance positively shines in the novel’s central device: the vicissitudes of that vizier’s bridge and the generations it served. “This hard and long building process was for them [the Višegrad people] a foreign task undertaken at another’s expense. Only when, as the fruit of this effort, the great bridge arose, men began to remember details and to embroider the creation of a real, skillfully built and lasting bridge with fabulous tales which they well knew to weave and remember.” No “absolutely negative” here!
But by now it should be clear that Omer Pasha Latas will be no paean to the Ottoman period. In the very first pages, when our eponymous protagonist comes to Sarajevo in 1850 to implement certain moderately progressive reforms at whatever cost to the local Muslim gentry, “The procession […] was truly impressive and intimidating, but somehow overdone. In front of it and behind it, to the right and left of it, stretched the deprivation of a poor harvest and a hungry spring, the bleakness of crooked, puddle-filled alleys, dilapidated eaves and long unpainted houses, the poorly dressed people and their anxious faces.”
But unlike the vizier of Drina, Omer Pasha, who began his life utterly beyond the Ottoman pale, voluntarily defects to the Turkish Empire. Almost right away “he found good, warmhearted people,” and upon their advice he converts to Islam.
As it happens, there was a real “Omer-paša Latas[,] [b]orn Michael Lattas,” whom Malcolm’s history describes as “one of the most effective and intelligent governors [Bosnia] ever had in this last century of Ottoman rule,” and who implemented certain reforms to the benefit of the Christian minority. In Andrić’s portrayal you will find little testimony of his effectiveness, and even less of his arguable benignity. He is, in a word, lost.
If warmhearted people are less in evidence in Omer Pasha than they might be (Andrić specializes in the envious, the jealous, the lovesick, and above all the disappointed), localism and syncretism remain his affectionate obsessions. One of this novel’s many briefly yet elegantly sketched characters is the eastern Bosnian village headman Knez Bogdan Zimonjić, whose massively silent obstinacy holds its own against Omer Pasha’s seduction and threats. The unpleasant Omer Pasha himself (“I will reduce your entire Bosnia to rubble, so no one will know who is a bey and who an aga”) contains multitudes: for instance, the failed father of his Austrian past, his unhappy wife (another former Christian), and the “traitors’ unit” of kindred converts, with whom he operates in exquisitely delineated uneasy dependence.
“Most were despairing vagrants who had lost one homeland and not found another, damaged by life among strangers, with burned bridges behind them […] condemned to being loyal soldiers because they had nowhere to go” — call them fragmentary fictive representations of a certain post-1945 Dr. Ivo Andrić.
And so let me now quote another war reporter, Aleksa Djilas, writing in the gruesome year 1992: “Though he came from a Croatian family in Bosnia” — I pause to remind you of the claim that “Dr. Ivo Andrić is himself a Serb and a Bosnian” — “Andrić considered himself a Yugoslav — a nationality that encompassed identities of all the different Yugoslav groups. […] [He] believed only a general acceptance of such a Yugoslav identity within a common state could put an end to the ancient conflicts among various Yugoslav groups.” Whether or not the last sentence is a stretch, I believe that Andrić’s literary project is indeed the noble one of encompassing all the identities he knew.
Who and what, then, was an Ottoman, a Muslim, an occupier, a person of the third sort? “Knowing that to be a true Turk meant being naturally hard, haughty, basically cold and unyielding,” the fictive Omer Pasha does his best to live up to this stereotype, but one hallmark of Andrić’s genius is that as we read him we keep wondering about the problematic nature of all identities, let alone assumed ones. Consider this telling observation from the viewpoint of the procurer Ahmet Aga: Omer Pasha “was beginning to lose his sense of proportion, to forget not only what was permissible and natural and what was not, but also what he himself really wanted and could do and what he could not.” That goes for most of the novel’s characters, from the man who loses his sanity after a love-inflaming glimpse of a strange woman, to Omer Pasha’s irresolute and undistinguished brother, whom the great man advises to consider suicide.
And so we should read Andrić with due regard for ambiguity and irony. There are Turks and Turkish masks. When the Croatian-born, European-trained painter Karas, having received a commission to paint Omer Pasha, enters the empire, “the first Turkish junior officer who had examined his passport at the border, though barely able to read, had worn […] a cold, repellent mask. […] And it was the same everywhere.” If you like, take such passages as nail-in-the-coffin proofs of (requoting Ajami) this author’s “great dread of Islam in the Balkans.” But Omer Pasha, the strict cold Turk, is not a Turk. And Karas, a non-Muslim failure wherever he goes, takes comfort in bigoted resentment.
In this strange novel there comes no resolution, if only because the book remained unfinished at the time of Andrić’s death; the bitter epiphanies of minor characters shed but glancing flickers upon the impermeable solitude of Omer Pasha himself, who at the end departs for unknown places with us none the wiser as to his mission’s practical accomplishments. How life will devolve for his raging wife, and whether Karas’s portrait ever turned out well, of these and other matters we are left ignorant.
Omer Pasha Latas consists less of sequential chapters than of vignettes, which in Drina would have transformed themselves into tales out of the folk tradition, and even here sometimes blossom into magical realism, as in the case of a certain Kostake Nenishanu, maître d’hotel of Omer Pasha’s entourage, who unavailingly pursues and finally murders a Christian prostitute: “the story of his crime […] spread in different directions and to a different rhythm, to grow and branch out, present everywhere but invisible as an underground stream,” serving the superficially opposed purposes of wish compensation and didactic morality tale — the more so as they diverge from actuality. Not only does this passage give a tolerable idea of Andrić’s art; it also stands in for alienation’s beautiful escapist dreams. The novel’s characters cannot understand each other or even themselves.
One might say, this is surely the human condition … but then new passages hammer away at the Turks, until it grows more difficult to reject Ajami’s interpretation of Andrić’s politics — difficult, but not impossible.
It is hardly unreasonable to see Bosnia, as Andrić did in Omer Pasha, as “a society where there have long been disorder, violence and abuse.” And at times, certainly in the 1990s and the 1940s, maybe in 1850–1851 when the novel is set, “people could be divided,” as he upliftingly put it, “into three groups, unequal in size, but sharing the same wretchedness: prisoners, those who pursued and guarded them and silent, impotent onlookers.” These observations ring true, but not eternal. And so readers must decide for themselves whether or not Omer Pasha Latas contains bigotry. Perhaps the best compliment they could pay it would be to delve into Bosnian history.
As for “that Serb or Croat (take your pick) monstre sacré Ivo Andrić,” (in the words of Danilo Kiš, another great writer from the region) let me leave you with one last assessment from Djilas: “In Andrić’s cautious and quiet reserve there was something hard and unyielding, even bitter, which any threat to the deeper currents of his life would have encountered. […] In his deepest and most creative self, Andrić tried to live outside finite time.” Good communists could hardly approve of that! And indeed, Djilas went on to insist that “somehow, everyone must pay his debt to his times.” However, he ended the sentence as follows, either to soften the disparagement of Andrić or because he was now considering his own darkening situation: “But the wise man thinks his own thoughts and does things his own way.”
Andrić did pay his debt to his times. He wrote about what formed him. His bitterness was sincere, his descriptions beautiful. Meanwhile, like Omer Pasha, he thought his own thoughts, leaving us with haunting sentences and difficult questions.
William T. Vollmann is the author of three collections of stories, more than ten novels, and many more volumes of nonfiction. His novel Europe Central won the National Book Award in 2005, and he has won the Whiting Foundation Award and the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Award for his fiction. In 2018, he published a two-volume investigation into climate change, Carbon Ideologies.
 Readers should be warned that my attempt to express narrative continuity in regard to Bosnia’s multiple tragedies may be controversial or even offensive. Many accounts take the position that the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s was a unique event, like the Holocaust, and that it would not have happened without its Serbian instigators. “The biggest obstacle to all understanding of the conflict [in Bosnia of 1992–1993] is the assumption that what has happened […] is the product […] of forces lying within Bosnia’s own internal history. This is the myth which was carefully propagated by those who caused the conflict.” (Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History). All I can say is that books written in and about (for instance) the 1940s are sufficiently replete with gruesome slaughters for the greater glory of this creed or that ethnicity as to make me uncomfortable with this reductionist position. If my own conflation (or, if you like, misunderstanding) causes pain to anyone, I am sincerely sorry.