The contrast between the beauty of this novel and the profound darkness of its vision is stark. It’s a bleak picture of Bosnia, after 400 years of Ottoman rule, that stands as a exemplar of many a disputed territory/human conflict, preceding or following (there are names that will be instantly familiar from the Yugoslav war). As Omer Pasha really existed, really was the marshal sent by the Sultan to ensure the acquiescence of the region to the will of empire, this is a far less benevolent view of the man than history generally accepts. That caveat noted, this is a credible portrait of the time and place, Omer Pasha Latas opens a door on a closed off world. More than anything, it is a study of character, it reminds me of Tolstoy’s dictum (Anna Karenina) about unhappy families each being unhappy in their own way. Here we have characters trapped in the prison of their own misfortune and despair, suffering alone. They are prisoners of poverty and oppression, but also of trappings and wealth; of expectation and experience.
Omer Pasha Latas is an elegant historical novel, although nearly fifty years old it deals in issues that have a contemporary resonance. The novel is about identity; what it is to be human, to be born one side of a line as opposed to another, to be stretched and manipulated by history and led by political and economic circumstances. Omer Pasha Latas questions the nature or nurture argument and concepts of good and evil. Whether people are born into their lives and are the victims of fate or whether we make our own beds?
Understanding the Balkans is a task of mind blowing complexity. It’s like playing keepy-uppy while walking a tightrope across Niagara falls, précising the finer points of Das Capital for an audience of primary school children. That’s flippant I know, at the heart of any conflict is the human element, but this region has more than its fair share of hatred and enmity built up over centuries. There are writers who deliver an insight into the fog of history, making the deciphering of the enigma easier; Ismail Kadare, Ahmet Altan come to mind, but also, of course, Ivo Andric. It isn’t just what Omer Pasha Latas tells us about the characters but also about the author, the (then modern) context he was writing within: Communist Yugoslavia, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Ottoman rule. The two are interwoven, maybe even, indistinguishable.
You can’t separate the life and times of the writer from the novel. Forewarned is forearmed. Andric (1892-1975) was born in Bosnia to Catholic parents (then occupied by Austria). He grew up near the Serbian border on the Drina (his most famous novel was The Bridge on the Drina). He was a political activist calling for south Slav autonomy. After the assassination of the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which ignited WWI, he was held under house arrest until 1917. After the war he served as a diplomat in the new Yugoslav government. He returned to Belgrade at the start of WWII and again spent a war under house arrest. He was a member of the national assembly after the war and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961. Omer Pasha Latas was his last work. This is the first translation into English of a powerful and thought provoking novel. Beautifully rendered by Celia Hawksworth.
Set in mid-19th century Bosnia-Herzegovina, then part of the Ottoman empire. The novel opens with the arrival of Omer Pasha in Sarajevo. Many governors have passed through and the local viziers have turned out to greet them but this will be different. The procession is a show of power, a presage of severe rule. The imperial Seraskier has sweeping powers and a sizeable army. Their presence is not to defend the border against the neighbouring Austro-Hungarian empire but to ensure the subjugation of the people. The local viziers are no longer trusted vassals of the Sultan. “He was not coming as an authority to rule and manage, but to wage war and punish.” Omer Pasha has a curious background, “…a former Christian from the Lika district, an Austrian cadet, who had fled to Bosnia quarter of a century earlier, converted to Islam and then, through his knowledge, skills and personal merit, risen to the highest military position in the empire.” Andric describes him as “Rich, proud and devious”. A madman attempts to disrupt the procession, this is the introduction of Osman, the first in depth portrait in the novel. The story is driven by the individual stories of the characters, how they come to be here, how they play their part. Osman’s is a sad melancholic tale of a man’s descent into madness, he is the “town lunatic”. In a truthful note Andric tells us, “people were beginning to forget that he had ever been different.”
Omer Pasha sets himself up in an old government building on Gorica Hill and summons the locals to him: “The haughty oligarchy”. Like all of the empire, Bosnia must submit to reform and to the modernisation of the army. The threat is clear, any one resisting change will be crushed. The marshal is the suppressor of every uprising in Turkey. They underestimate his steel, suggest resistance to uphold their traditions and rights. Omer Pasha uses the army: “Now it moved like a fluid, like dark, red-hot lava that rolls, swirls, crackles and erupts, stopped by nothing so long as its heat and weight endure.”
The portrait of “the traitors division”, highlights the matter of perception; they are feared and loathed but they are not traitors, they are foreigners, they are not Muslims, they can never be trusted fully. Yet they seem themselves as loyal. When deployed they are restless and alienated, they behave badly, they drink and abuse the local population with impunity. They become what people expect them to be.
As each story unfolds, a vision of a world of harsh existence and misery emerges. Mujaga Telalagic, betrayed by other dissenters, thrown under the bus as it were, was arrested and is now in chains, he is part of a gang being marched to Istanbul for trial. Saida Hanuman’s beguiling tale is full of trepidation, conformity and desire, she winds up in an unhappy marriage to Omer Pasha. Then there is Kostake’s tragic tale and Consul General Atanackovic, prideful, pitiful fall.
This is the story of the machinations of empire. Of how we rewrite events, even as they are occurring, how we reinforce prejudice and hatred down the generations. The human capacity to do good but also to do evil, with a terrible passion. The grand themes in this novel are reminiscent of Lampedusa’s The Leopard, in its portrayal of power, corruption and decay.
Omer Pasha Latas adds to our understanding of a fractured world. A masterpiece and no mistake.
Paul Burke 5/5
Omer Pasha Latas by Ivo Andric
The New York Review of Books 9781681372525 pbk Oct 2018