Posts Tagged ‘the Balkans’

Bernard Ollivier: Longue Marche – suite et fin

May 19, 2018

I was fascinated by Bernard Ollivier‘s account of his three-year endeavour to walk the 12,000kms of the Silk Route, from Istanbul to Beijing, a project he undertook around the turn of the century, after he had retired, and lost his wife. It wasn’t exploration, but it was genuine travel, as he engaged with all sorts of people he met on his journey, and grappled with many problems. There are three volumes in his account (1,2,3).

He met and settled with a new partner and lives in Normandy: she asked why he had started from Istanbul rather than from France, as Lyons was where silk manufacture and trade had developed in France from the Middle Ages. Then she suggested they walk that final stretch of the journey together. Ollivier was faced with two challenges: walking with someone else, whereas he had always walked alone, from preference, and covering a further couple of thousand kilometres at the age of seventy-three. I can only admire him and hope that I have a small portion of such energy and the desire to live adventurously if I reach that age…

He is less rigid about scrupulously covering every kilometre on foot this time; there are occasional short bus and taxi journeys when these are necessary to avoid difficulties. He is older and more crook than previously and he lets us know this. Encounters with locals in places they pass through are markedly more difficult and rarer when there are two of them, though people still do marvel at the craziness of the exploit when they learn what the couple’s goal is.

It’s Europe, so feels more familiar than the earlier walking, but for me the real eye-opener was his account of their journey through the Balkans. He passes through all the countries that were rent by the horrific civil wars and massacres in the years around the turn of the century, conflicts that we lived through and heard about at the time and were appalled by, but which, of course, we have now more or less forgotten. Their impressions of the aftermath of the war: the destruction still apparent; the cemeteries which dot the landscape as those of the Somme battlefields do; the suspicions and latent hatreds still smouldering between communities and nations, the issues unresolved; the footpaths they cannot walk along because of the uncleared mines… it was a chilling picture, presented through the eyes of a couple with whom I could identify because of their ages and their love of walking and encountering people.

The book rounds off and closes the epic adventure, I suppose. Ollivier is a kind of hero for me, or at least someone I can admire for his spirit of adventure at his age, knowing that he has done something I might aspire to but will never do…

Ivo Andric: The Bridge over the Drina

October 8, 2015

51p5h3T72JL._AA160_I bought this book three and a half years ago; I began reading it in August and have only just finished it: this might give the impression that it wasn’t very good, perhaps a bit of a chore; not so.

Andric‘s style is cosy, warm, almost welcoming, rapidly drawing you into the tale of the bridge over the river at Visegrad – yes it actually exists – the time before, the decision of the Turks in the sixteenth century that it should be built, and their cruelty. I’ve never read a detailed description of an impalement before, and one is enough.

The slow passage of time, the mingling of the peoples in this corner of the Balkans, the slow effect of the centuries on the town and the bridge is almost hypnotic. And there is the complexity of the relations between the peoples with their different faiths, their violent politics, and the casual cruelty that seems a natural part of life. The stonework of the bridge endures whilst people come and go, are born and die, their memory fading away.

After three centuries, things speed up as the Turks retreat and the Austrians march in: we are in the 1880s, in relentless buildup to the Great War and our hindsight (and that of the author) adds an ominous feel to the unfolding of events and lives. And yet, in spite of the changes, tempestuous events, impending doom, the measured tone of the narrative carries us along like the flow of the river Drina, giving a certain sense of permanence which we see in the enduring of the bridge itself.

Andric weaves together stories of the town and its outlying villages with vignettes of individual, no doubt representative characters, and detailed and touching elements of local colour.

We feel a very clear sense of the end of an era as the war draws ever closer and sucks many of the town’s inhabitants into its madness, as the outsiders which are the armies move in, take over, mine the bridge for when it will be necessary to destroy it: Andric captures this sense of ending as cleverly as does Lampedusa in The Leopard, or Philip Larkin in MCMXIV. Calamity strikes, the bridge is blown, one of the characters whom we have been following for quite some time, reaches his end too.

I found the book very moving, in a low-key kind of way, if that makes any sense. Through fiction, I have learned something about the complexity of this region and these peoples, whose tragedy has been replayed in my lifetime. Andric drew me in, kept me interested, drew me back after a gap of over a month; it was worth it, it is a marvellous book.

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