Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Ivo Andrić: The Damned Yard

Ivo Andrić (1892-1875), writer from former Yugoslavia and 1961 Nobel Prize Laureate, requires a few notes before continuing. Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Bosnians, Croatians and Serbs have tried to claim him as theirs. Nobody can quite agree what his modern nationality is. Wikipedia explains why each of these countries thinks he nowadays belongs to them. For the purposes of this post, as part of the European Reading Challenge, I’m assigning him to Serbia, since Wikipedia informs me that in 1951 he identified himself as Serb in his identity card. If that was his wish, it’s good enough for me.

And yet there’s nothing Serbian about The Damned Yard (1954), a novella he wrote between his longest works. The novel is about a Bosnian monk and takes place in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire. Speaking of ethnicities, this novella includes Bosnians, Bulgarians, Armenians, Turks, Georgians, and Greeks. I can’t even begin to fathom the international tapestry of the empire. Seems as useless as trying to figure out all the ethnicities from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

For years I’ve been curious to read this novella. There was a small boom in Portuguese translations back in 2003 when this book was first translated. It was also, the introduction informs me, the first time he was translated into Portuguese at all. More followed over the years, like The Bridge on the Drina and Bosnian Chronicle. They may be good, even stupendous, books, but I just hope they’re better than The Damned Yard, or at least more substantial.

But before we proceed here’s a brief description: the novella opens with the funeral rites of Friar Petar, a Christian Bosnian monk, dead of old age. Another monk, sorting his stuff in his convent cell, reminisces about the old man, who talked a great deal about his stay in Istanbul many years before. As a young man, he was sent to Istanbul in the company of Friar Tadeu Ostojic because he knew how to write Turkish. After their arrival, the Turkish police intercept a suspicious letter and through an excess of paranoia arrest Petar for questioning. He remains two months in prison while the investigation goes on. After the frame narrative ends we move to the prison and the stories told in its yard. In it he meets and lives with murders, thieves, liars, conmen, counterfeiters and delinquents, but also innocent men and lunatics.

The novella’s problems, however, start with the dissonance between what the frame narrative promises and the reality of the narrative. Here’s how Friar Petar is said to talk about his time in prison:

Of these two months spent in the Istanbul investigation prison Brother Petar spoke more and more enthusiastically than anything else. He spoke slowly, in fragments, like a gravely ill man can who’s trying not to show his interlocutor the physical pain and the frequent thought about death that is ever closer. These fragments not always moved orderly or sequentially. Many times, on narrating, the friar repeated things he had already said, and often moved on jumping quite a few bits of time. He spoke as one for whom time no longer meant anything and who, therefore, in his estranged life also didn’t give any matter to time or its regular march. His stories, then, could be interrupted, continue, repeat themselves, move forward or backwards be completed after finished, explained and amplified without respect for place, time and the real order of events.

This is promising, this is intimidating. This is Proustian, or Joycean. The fragmentation of time, the rupture with traditional linear storytelling, ellipses galore, ambiguity, taunting of the reader with snippets of half-stories, the amalgam of the rhythms of stream of consciousness and oral storytelling impaired by the erosion of memory! The first pages assure us this is the greatest Modernist text the world never heard of! This will put to shame Guimarães Rosa! This is Tristram Shandy risen from the dead!

But as it turns out it’s not. It’s a very linear, very simple, very familiar, in subject, ambition and language, novella. It feels like the skeleton of a novel, more like an abstract, a summary with a handful of episodes and capsule biographies of supporting characters. The first problem of the novella is obviously its length: at only 103 pages in my edition, this novella doesn’t have the size to give us the multitude of characters and stories it promises. It’s too short to create a disruptive rhythm of getting in, staying and leaving off into something else, before coming back 200 pages later for another bit. It doesn’t have room to meander and bifurcate into micro-stories and come back to the main one. In fact it adheres fiercely to the relationship between Petar and another inmate, Kâmil. Perhaps it started like that, briefly telling us about some of the other inmates, but it was certainly an initial hesitation, Andrić found what he wanted and apparently changed his mind about his great modernist, sprawling novel. No, this is not Tristram Shandy, this is not Ulysses, it’s not Grande Sertão: Veredas, all books I despise incidentally, but at least I give them credit for being audacious to be what they are.

But if we put aside this dissonance, is the novella good anyway? Well, it’s never bad enough for one to give up. I’ve read worst books in my life, this year even. It maintains a steady enough rate of interesting incident to justify turning the pages. The prose is functional, if nothing else. The inmates talk about their lives, their families, sex and why they were arrested. There’s a running critique of power and justice that I enjoyed. The courts and police are not held in great esteem, especially because it’s widely known in Istanbul that it’s “easier to free an innocent man from the damned yard than going after criminals in the city’s labyrinths.” Obviously there are inmates who profess to be innocent and framed by the authorities, who are corrupt, inept and idle. It’s all very Midnight Express, but without Oliver Stone’s excellent dialogues, throat-biting murder and Giorgio Moroder’s synth score.

The prison is governed by Latif-Agá, nicknamed Karagöz, after a character in Turkish puppet shows. He’s been the prison’s warden for twenty years when Petar enters it. Karagöz is an interesting character, perhaps the only one. He’s a former delinquent who joined the police and started going after his own friends in the underworld, like a Vidocq. Excelling at capturing criminals, he gets a job in the prison and soon rises to the rank of warden, ruling over his small kingdom with total impunity and cruelty. Even though I like him he’s familiar. Basically Andrić invented him after digesting every text Kafka wrote about the Law and its infallibility:

Wretched be whoever tells me he’s innocent. Everything but that. Because here there are no innocents. No one is here by chance. Whoever crossed the gate of this Yard is not innocent. He’s done something wrong, even if in dreams. Or, at least, his mother, when she was giving birth to him, thought something wicked. Each one, of course, says he’s not guilty, but in all these years I’ve been here I haven’t yet known a single case that was brought here without a reason and without guilt. Whoever enters here is guilty, or at least was close to someone guilty. There are no innocent here. But there are guilty, by the thousands, who are not here and who will never come here, because if everybody guilty ended up here, this yard would have to stretch from sea to sea. I know men, they’re all guilty, only not everybody is destined to eat his bread here.

Karagöz, I’ll repeat, is the most interesting character in the novella and there should be a whole book on him. Alas the novella neglects him in order to focus on the budding friendship between Petar and Kâmil.

The story of Kâmil is simple and uneventful. He was born to a Turkish father and Greek mother. He’s in prison for political reasons. “It was said that, due to studying the history of the Ottoman Empire, he had lost his mind and, imagining that the spirit of an ill-wishing prince had inhabited his body, he had started thinking he was a frustrated Sultan.” Kâmil was an avid scholar and reader, and his library, full of foreign books, made the secret police suspicious. When rumours start circulating that he thinks he’s a long-dead Sultan, they arrest him (once again the theme of paranoia and injustice). In prison he befriends Petar, tells him about his historical studies and eventually ends up in a pavilion devoted to insane prisoners (you see, just like Midnight Express!). This may well be the novella’s single claim to ambiguity. What happens to him? Does he die? Does he stayed locked up forever? Petar never finds out because the two months end and he’s released, free to continue his journey with the older friar. And that’s that.

On the weakness of this novel I don’t intend to return to Andrić in the next years. I repeat, it’s not awful. It’s just nothing special. Barely-constructed characters, pedestrian psychology, clear but predictable prose, familiar themes treated without any new insight, no richness of imagination. And with the clock ticking and hundreds of promising books at home to read, nothing special isn’t what I want to spend my time reading.


  1. I know that lots of Andric is available in English, but the only book I ever see mentioned is The Bridge on the Drina. So this is all news to me.

    It occurs to me I have only ever spoken about the book (Bridge) with Bosnians, who recommended it with enthusiasm but always pair it with Mesa Selimovic's Death and the Dervish, not a second Andric novel.

    1. Tom, sometimes it does happen one arrives at a writer through the wrong book. That's what happens when you go after cheap bargains, like I did.

  2. Good point about the ticking clock weighing heavily on us readers! Like Tom, The Bridge on the Drina is the Ivo Andrić title I most often (only?) hear about, so it's somewhat disappointing to share in your frustration with this novel even secondhand. On that note, thanks for the warning.

    1. All this talk about the Drina has made me curious. Can't someone kindly go read it and review it for me?


    3. Nnyhav, thanks for that. So that what extent is the bridge a character unto itself?

    4. Not a character but all that character is defined against. Maria Antic's article (linked in mine) describes better than I could.

    5. Thanks for that resource, nnyhav. I'll try not to let my disappointment for The Damned Yard stop me from trying this novel, which seems better.