5) The Days of the Consuls, by Ivo Andrić
I had previously heard of this book as Travnik Chronicle, which is the original Serbo-Croat title, but only worked out that they were the same novel as I was finishing it. It’s the story of life in Andrić’s home town of Travnik as experienced by the Austrian and French consuls during the Napoleonic wars, told mainly from the viewpoint of the foreigners living in the town. I really liked it.
When I was living in Bosnia in 1997-98, I had a choice of four routes from Banja Luka to Sarajevo – two ran east and then south, through Doboj, with the choice between a shortcut at Prnjavor or the longer but better road through Derventa; and the other two were south and then east, either the longer and better road along the Vrbas valley or the mountain road over Mount Vlašić, rejoining the main road just west of Travnik. (Nowawdays the other mountain road going east through Kotor Varoš and Maglaj has been so much improved that it is the best route.)
The Doboj route was usually faster, but the Travnik route much prettier; the beautiful old town is just at the right place for a break, and I’ve had many a cup of coffee or glass of yogurt sitting beside the Lašva river (sadly these days better known for the massacres of the 1990s). What is particularly striking – now as in the nineteenth century – is the way the old town just pops out at you from around a corner as you are travelling, fortress and minarets glowing in the sunlight reflected off the mountains (if you are lucky with the weather).
I remember once on the road back home from Sarajevo, with Anne and a very young B, we took the Mount Vlašić route. We had just crossed a temporary metal bridge over a river gorge when B started crying and we had to stop to feed her, right beside a Dutch army camp. You can’t exactly knock on the door of a large tent, but we made our presence known and begged some Douwe Egberts (the Dutch army does not stint itself on coffee). The soldiers explained, pointing at the bridge we had just crossed, that they were posted there to prevent it from being stolen. We wished them well.
But back to the book. Travnik was the administrative capital of Bosnia until 1850, so the obvious place for the consuls to be posted. I thought at first that there was no plot at all, just a series of balanced and very detailed character sketches of the consuls themselves, their wives, the three successive viziers, and their staff. The native Bosnians themselves are not at the centre of the narrative – the Catholic clergy feature quite a lot, the mainly Muslim townspeople to a large extent as stereotypes (the book’s biggest flaw), the Jewish community are reasonably well represented, the local Serbs come into it only twice quite near the end.
But I began to realise that the book is largely about how people experience other cultures. Although the foreigners – Austrians, French and Ottoman viziers – all hate living in Travnik and dealing with the locals, I think Andrić portrays this as a big mistake on their part. Danville, the French consul who arrives at the start and leaves at the end, is the most sympathetic character, perhaps closest to a viewpoint character, but he is perpetually writing bad poetry about Napoleon and missing the local drama of the town for the sake of conspiring against the Austrians. By the time I was halfway through the book I felt that it should be compulsory reading for anyone working on the Balkans, provided they were prepared to look through the Western characters’ stereotypical reactions to the Bosnians.
Am I reading it too generously? Was Andrić being serious rather than ironic? Why could he not have stated more clearly that he is exposing rather than sympathising with the foreigners’ condescension? I stand by my interpretation because Andrić wrote the book in 1942, in Nazi-occupied Belgrade. And I think that his portrayal of civilised diplomats immersed in a barbarous, violent culture takes on a whole new burden of meaning when you remember that, until the collapse under German invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Andrić was serving his country as an ambassador – in Berlin.