Omer Pasha Latas by Ivo Andric. (tr. Celia Hawkesworth). NYRB Classics. 273 pp, $16.95
When the Yugoslav writer Ivo Andrić was a young man, he was arrested under suspicion of involvement in the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He ended up spending most of the catastrophic war precipitated by that assassination under house arrest.
By the Second World War, Andrić had become a diplomat, and he served as ambassador to Germany up until 1941, when Yugoslavia was invaded. He then wrote the work for which he is best known, The Bridge on the Drina (Na Drini Ćuprija), followed by many more novels, short stories, and essays. He won the Nobel Prize in 1961 and died in 1975—perhaps mercifully, before the death of Tito and the splintering of Yugoslavia.
It was a splintering that would have devastated him. When asked, Andrić would insist that he was neither Serb nor Croat. As Milovan Djilas, vice president under Tito, later recounted: “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.’”
I mention all this because the themes you see threaded through Andrić’s life—the great, wasting, forces of history, the ruin wreaked by the passage of time, the devastation wrought under both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian occupation, and the precious ideal of a unified Yugoslavia—are also prominent in his work, particularly in his last, unfinished novel.
Omer Pasha Latas is set for the most part in Sarajevo in 1850. It concerns a historical figure, though how closely Andrić hewed to the record I can’t say. In any case, Omer Pasha—the historical and the fictional man alike—was an Orthodox Serb from Lika who made a brilliant career for himself in the Turkish military after he converted to Islam.
As the novel begins, Omer Pasha has been sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina to enact various “reforms.” The pasha and his magnificent army have arrived in Sarajevo, and Sarajevo, from its wealthiest leaders to its poorest unknowns, has turned out to watch them arrive. It’s an impressive sight, and
when it had all thundered past, like a vision, many of the idle spectators stayed where they were, entranced, blinking as from too bright a glare … How terrible, mysterious, dangerous and, like it or not, beautiful, everything that had passed before them—weapons, soldiers and, particularly, the officers! How sleek their horses and how clean and bright everything on them! … And to most of the people, lined up in two rows, the army did look as if it belonged to a distant world, which knew nothing of need and feared no one. The mere fact that such a world could exist brought tears to many eyes, tears of indeterminate origin and of mixed, quite contradictory emotions.
Andrić is reminiscent of Tolstoy here, not only in his military interest but also in the scope of his gaze: it can stretch to encompass an entire town, an entire army, though it can also focus swiftly in on one particular, deranged man, who in a moment’s confusion steps out in front of an officer’s parading horse.
As a narrator, Andrić can be generous and patient but also devastating; he has an unearthly sympathy for each of his characters that, still, won’t allow him to protect them. He’s also terribly witty. Of one Sarajevan, the town intellectual, if you will, Andrić writes: “He spent his time in reading and in mysterious and portentous retelling of what he had read. The more he advanced in years, the less he read and the more he talked.”
Andrić is particularly remarkable for his psychological acuity. Consider the knot of complexity that is Omer Pasha: born Mićo Latas, he’d been a brilliant boy in a village too small to contain his ambitions. He was bored by his parents and the provincial people around him. He managed to acquire a scholarship to military school—Austrian, not Turkish—but, just as he is ready to graduate, he receives word that his father, a minor officer, “a weak man…a small, overlooked man,” has been indicted for misuse of state funds. The stigma will prevent Mićo from achieving any career at all. This is when he takes off for Istanbul to scrape together an entirely new life.
When he returns, he has a new name, a new religion, and an army trailing in his wake. But there isn’t a soul in Sarajevo who doesn’t know of the pasha’s conversion.
It’s hard to overstate the ignominy, the treachery, of that conversion, which entails not merely a new faith but, far worse, a shift in allegiance toward the occupiers of his own people.
This is all laid bare in a remarkable scene, early in the novel, between Omer Pasha and the leader of a small village, a Serb named Knez Bogdan Zimonjić. The pasha has been meeting with various community leaders, “to establish connections,” but also “to put them under an obligation to him or to scare them”. “When he talked like this,” Andrić tells us, “one-on-one, with influential representatives of the people, Omer adopted a special timbre and tone of voice.” In other words, he reverts to the accent and style of speaking specific to the place of his birth—to Lika. And while he changes his speech to gain Zimonjić’s trust, the effect is exactly the opposite. Zimonjić is instantly on his guard.
Omer Pasha launches into a long speech about the “reforms” which must be enacted—and, while at the beginning of his speech all of the power in the room belongs to him, by its end, he has grown tired and confused, “that familial tone was steadily fading.” Finally, “his last words contained the trace of a foreign accent”—that is: a Turkish accent.
Throughout all this, Zimonjić remains silent, carefully attuned to every shift in the pasha’s dialect. Over the next few hours, Omer Pasha does everything he can to regain the balance of power. But by the end of their meeting he is overwrought. “You don’t believe me or trust my word, do you?” he demands. He grabs hold of Zimonjić, crying, “know that before you stands not Omer Pasha but Mićo Latas from Janja Gora. And since you don’t believe my words, believe this…”
He then throws aside his “heavy fez with its blue tassel,” and, in the Orthodox way, “put three fingers of his right hand together, [and] crossed himself.”
Omer Pasha was published after Andrić died, and it debuts in English now in a lovely NYRB Classics edition, beautifully translated by Celia Hawkesworth. It is marred only by a rather inept introduction by William T. Vollmann. Because the history here is complicated, the politics so tangled, it is important to have a clear and knowledgeable guide to situate the reader. Unfortunately, Vollmann’s facile view of Yugoslav history and Ivo Andrić’s career is of little help.
To begin with, he seems to mistake Ottoman occupation for benevolent protection, and he is unable to differentiate between criticism of that occupation and bigotry.
Vollmann quotes a (non-Yugoslav) historian as saying that Omer Pasha Latas was “one of the most effective and intelligent governors [Bosnia] ever had in this last century of Ottoman rule,” and then criticizes Andrić, in whose portrayal “you will find little testimony of [Omer’s] effectiveness.” Why would you? Are the colonized expected to thank their colonizers?
Vollmann seems more interested in describing his own wartime exploits than providing an accurate sense of Andrić’s complicated world. In 1992, Vollmann brags, he was in Sarajevo, “rushing down the almost empty streets, acutely conscious of my neck”. What does this have to do with Ivo Andrić? Nothing. But there’s an easy fix here, and maybe I should have started with that. Skip the introduction. Read Ivo Andrić.
Maybe this all seems remote and far away, centuries removed: all these tiny countries and former countries with their armies and religious conversions and oh-so-subtle differences in dialect. But Andrić has much to tell us about the dangers of sectarianism, of nationalism, and the horrors of occupation. He has even more to tell us about the psychology of a man in power—a man troubled and flawed, as anyone in power must be.
As Omer Pasha’s army rides into town, the people of Sarajevo are struck by the sight, which seemed to “[belong] to a different world, which knew nothing of need and feared no one.” As American troops mobilize along the Southern border, surely that’s a line we can all understand.
Natalia Holtzman is a 2018 Emerging Critics Fellow with the National Book Critics Circle. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, the Ploughshares blog, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA from the University of Alabama and currently lives in Ann Arbor, MI.
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