When my friend Peter came back after vacation, he gave the best gift ever: another book by his compatriot writer and Noble Prize winner Ivo Andrić. Peter had decided to gift me his personal favorite: The Damned Yard and other stories.
As the title suggests, the book contains 10 novellas mainly set during the Ottoman rule of the Balkan region (1459-1913). One of these novellas -my best-loved one in the collection- is The Story of the Vizier’s Elephant. The narrative is set in a Bosnian village called Travnik, where a new Vizier -Dželaludin Pasha- comes to rule them along with his pet: a baby elephant.
The reaction of the villagers upon seeing this exotic creature for the first time is almost comical. But as the power of the Vizier declines, so does the popularity of his elephant around the village. Ali Pasha is another story about a Vizier; this time of Herzegovina around the year 1831. It covers his rise and fall from power and the atrocities Ottomans practised against their subjects, such as confiscating lands and murdering leading figures who opposed them publicly.
Also, the inner works of their politics: how public official successors got rid of their predecessors as a power display to the public and also to please their superiors in Istanbul. Another story I enjoyed thoroughly is The Climbers that is set in a town on a mountain plateau called Osatica. The story revolves around the expansion of a church in the town at the time of the Austrian rule in Bosnia.
Andrić’s verbal dexterity is evident here as he describes the idle life of a mountain village and how people think and react when put in different situations. His subtle sense of humor draws a smile on your face while reading and his characters are easy to identify with. However, the most powerful story in the book is the one used as its main title: The Damned Yard. It talks about a friar called Petar who gets imprisoned in Istanbul on the charges of being a potential spy.
The Damned Yard is the name of the prison’s courtyard where prisoners gather and spend their whole day before going back to their cells. In there, Petar meets many interesting characters, especially Kamil who intrigues Petar’s curiosity- being of high birth and with vast knowledge of history. What crime has he committed to end up in the Damned Yard? The description of the prison, it’s diverse inmates -coming from different parts of the empire -and its ward Karagöz are impressively detailed. The sense of cultural diversity that Bosnia has always enjoyed is present in all stories.
Yet, as in many multicultural societies this could lead to friction and conflict. Andrić sheds light on how Christianity and Islam come clashing at times, not in historical context only but also in practices and beliefs. In the Guest House, Brother Marko obsesses about converting a sick Turk guest to his faith out of certainty that he’s an infidel. Unlike Petar in the Damned Yard who sympathises with his inmates Haim (a Jew) and Kamil (a Muslim) and keeps his occupation hidden from everyone else in fear of being treated differently. The conflict is also highlighted in the story A Letter From 1920, where a Bosnian Jew decides to leave his homeland out of lack of sense of belonging.
Nobody understands and represents human nature the way Andrić does within an eloquent narrative. A master storyteller whose work is thoroughly-researched, meticulously detailed, genuinely funny, thought provoking and relentlessly entertaining. A memorable reading experience from a true genius.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja. firstname.lastname@example.org