Understanding the great author – through his books and a trip to Travnik – is key to understanding Bosnia and Herzegovina...
Story by Enes Škrgo
It will be centuries before another Ivo Andrić is born. He was, in no particular order, a writer, an erudite, a polyglot, a prisoner, a mason, a king’s diplomat, a socialist parliament member, and the only Yugoslav writer to win the Nobel Prize. This “prince with no palace or a page ... one marvelous Sarajevan showing no Turkish atavism,” was how he was described at the beginning of his literary career. His work has inspired admiration and fueled controversy. But just as the citizens of Travnik in his novel Bosnian Chronicles believed they were different from the rest of the world, Andrić's literature will forever be connected to his spiritual homeland. He once said, “All of mine is from Bosnia.”
As the expression goes: “A man owes himself to his homeland.” In this philosophy, Andrić created his literary and life motto. His stories provided a vision of Bosnia few people knew anything about, but he also repaid his debt to his homeland in a physical sense. He donated his Nobel Prize money, almost one million dollars, to libraries throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina. In return, unfortunately, his homeland posthumously issued a sort of fatwa. Some intellectuals tried to prove, through their books and symposiums, that Andrić presented Bosnia as a country of hatred – creating a platform for the four years of bloodshed and persecution in the 1990s and thus marginalizing Andrić as a literary icon. Seeming to anticipate this, in his later years he regretted not using an alias when publishing his works. As early as 1942, he wrote in his diary: “Things we once said or talked about are not ours anymore and we cannot foresee what someone else’s will or mind may make out of it ... and it’ll always be signed by us.”
The question of who Andrić belongs to was answered by Bosnian author Ivan Lovrenović: “[Andrić] is a Bosnian and Serbian and Croatian writer – therefore as Bosnian as you can get....” One could argue he is primarily a writer who belongs to the world. His works have been translated into 43 languages and are still published and read across the globe. The storytelling of the “Balkan Homer” seems to prove a Goethe-ism: the work is more important than the author. And in fact, Andrić’s literature has outlived the writer, who worried that “with every old woman a verse dies and with every friar a history is buried.” As some claim, Ivo Andrić is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s most important cultural brand. He put his homeland on the literary – as well as tourist – map. For those less familiar with his work, it is important to note that it was not the Nobel Prize that made Andrić great. To say he was modest is an understatement. For instance, he refused to use his titles of Doctor of Philosophy and Academic. He avoided public appearances. Three different states awarded him medals; they were shown only at his funeral. What he thought of his status as national literary hero, can be summed up in a postcard he sent to the Literary Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina during one of his travels: “Kindest regards from an exhibit of yours whose name is Ivo Andrić.”
When he was told of plans for his birth house in Travnik to become a museum, he opposed the idea arguing he was no Tolstoy or Victor Hugo. He didn’t want a mausoleum while he was still alive. But he also understood the reasoning. “Praising me, the people of Travnik also praise themselves a bit. I don’t blame them. The whole of Bosnia is like Travnik.” So, in 1974, while Andrić was still alive, his birth home opened as a museum. On 13 March 1975 – the day of his death – it became a memorial museum.