Hannah Weber reviews Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan by Ivo Andrić

Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth (NYRB Classics, 2018)

There was a pause, a little interruption in the procession, so the surprise that followed should be all the greater, and then—on a white horse with gilded harness and red tassels, in a dark blue uniform embroidered with gold, slender and as poured from a mold, there was Seraskier Omer Pasha. He was like an apparition, unexpectedly mild and benign. As if not riding a horse but floating on a cloud. In surprise and wonderment, not believing their own eyes, the crowd watched the reflection of the early-evening sun falling onto his breast and illuminating his face, with its slightly graying beard and expression of stern dignity and enigmatic kindliness.

Here portrayed parading in front of curious onlookers in Ivo Andrić’s eponymous novel, Omer Pasha Latas, or simply Omer Pasha, was a real commander and field marshall who arrived in Sarajevo in 1850 with an army and entourage of officials. After proving his ruthless efficiency at suppressing uprisings across the empire, from Kurdistan to Albania, Omer Pasha was sent by the Ottoman Sultan to Bosnia, where he crushed a rebellion in 1850–1851.

Andrić’s novels tend to take an intimate, ethnographic approach to historical fiction—every cigarette, laundry line, and dirty cobblestone is given its due. He is known for his sweeping narratives and sizable casts of idiosyncratic characters, usually in a specific locale in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many people will be familiar with his most famous work, The Bridge on the Drina, which secured him the Nobel Prize in 1961. In The Bridge, he takes on four centuries of Višegrad’s history during the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. In Bosnian Chronicle, he tells the story of Travnik, his hometown, during a Napoleonic struggle in the early nineteenth century. Omer Pasha Latas, Andrić’s final novel before his death in 1975, translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth, covers a year in Sarajevo under the Ottoman commander’s influence. Alongside Andrić’s previous novels set in Višegrad and Travnik, it is said to complete an homage to the three Bosnian cities. From the familiar tone of this text, it may seem he writes about life rather than politics, but his work is entrenched with the darkest political themes—farce, folly, and acute suffering.

Andrić was well placed to cover historical figures, as he himself lived a largely political life. In addition to being Andrić’s primary English translator, Celia Hawkesworth also wrote the only English-language introduction to his life and work, covering the former diplomat’s many civic goings-on. Gavrilo Princip, the man said to have set off the First World War by assassinating Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, was friends with Andrić—a friendship that almost certainly influenced Andrić’s arrest by the Austro-Hungarian authorities. Suffering from tuberculosis, Andrić spent most of his time in prison reading and studying languages, which paved the way for his entry into diplomatic services following the war and contributed to many of the themes in his writing.

In Omer Pasha Latas, he completes his work of dissecting how empires and mass movements affect the lives of ordinary people. Playing much the same role as one of his minor characters, a mild, German-speaking painter, Andrić endeavours to draw a portrait of the year’s events. The painter himself has the impossible task of a biographer, wondering:

What was his real persona and what must be included in the painting as its essential component? Everything. This, and this, and this! Everything, only transformed and altered for eternity and his descendants.

So, Andrić undertakes to expose the inner life of an infamous commander in Sarajevo, largely through the eyes of others. The occupying forces take up residence in a lavish home, bringing with them a sense of moral disintegration. Omer Pasha’s insidious negotiations and enforcement of the Ottoman rule of law make him both profoundly influential and universally feared. Around the pasha are a gaggle of yes-men—a cook, a tailor, and a nineteenth-century version of a human resources manager. The author’s concern for the people’s moral humiliation is unambiguous. He paints a shrewd picture of a predatory military ruler exploiting his hosts; yet he is no more sympathetic to the Bosnian citizens, writing them as a people accustomed to being trampled on, clinging to pettiness, gossip, and rituals, and watching a select few profit from the chaos.

Born a Christian Serb, Omer Pasha finds his childhood pastoral life insufferable. As a child, he is evidently beyond his years in both cleverness and emotional intelligence—the kind not stemming from empathy but from the ability to read and manipulate others. Playing in the garden, he acts as a kind of biblical Adam, renaming the animals he encounters and thus demonstrating the power he has to dictate the world around him, in much the same way that he establishes the terms and conditions of Sarajevan life decades later.

Contrary to his steely exterior, Omer Pasha’s inner self is, as the publisher so aptly describes it, “supremely arrogant and pitifully vulnerable”—a characterization that could easily be made of several more powerful leaders today. His tactic for suppressing the rebellion lies not in military strength alone. When he negotiates, he does not play by the rules. Instead, he gloats, exaggerates, digresses, falsifies, makes innuendos, gaslights, and polarises his subjects. The commander does not prioritize more significant facts over miniscule details, choosing instead to “hide every truth, in roughly the same way people in another world hide lies,” thus creating chaos and an atmosphere of universal distrust.

Nearly a century after the real Omer Pasha’s tyranny in Bosnia, Hannah Arendt argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that

[t]he ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Under Omer Pasha’s influence, Sarajevo becomes a city in which people live in constantly narrowing silos as their trust in one another fades. His post-truth practice inevitably engenders a post-trust society. Barreling toward factionalism over a century before it was nearly destroyed in the same way—on ethnic and religious lines—Sarajevo is paralyzed by a lack of common ground, its citizens unable to resist the changes imposed on them. They become unable to relate to each other except through forms of manipulation. As the painter in the novel deduces:

Human relations are such that, under various guises, consciously or not, one person is exploited by and exploits others in many ways, from the most innocent forms of manipulation to the crudest kinds of abuse.

If this novel had been published in English even half a decade earlier, it would be easier to see the over-the-top, narcissist, Machiavellian demagogue as pure contrivance; a textbook villain with no bearing in the real world; an utterly implausible leader. However, as Omer Pasha’s tactics are being deployed in everyday twenty-first-century politics, with devastating effects, the novel should not serve as a farce but as a warning.

In Hawksworth’s flawless translation, the writing never feels heavy with the burden of the events it covers. The subject matter is grim, but she retains the meticulous attention to detail, subtle humour, and ethnographic style of Yugoslavia’s literary grandmaster. However, like anyone who dabbles in politics, Andrić remains controversial. He self-identified as a Serb, which has caused the Croatian and Bosniak communities in Bosnia to distance themselves from his literature, despite the geographic focus of his work. In 1992, as ethnic tensions rose, a statue of the author in Višegrad was destroyed with a sledgehammer. A decade later a new statue was unveiled, this time in an ethno-town called Andrićgrad, paid for by Serbian film director Emir Kusturica, himself controversial for his staunchly nationalist views and ties to the Kremlin.

The closing chapters are Andrić’s rendition of real letters written by an Austrian consul who, visiting Sarajevo, is perplexed by his interactions with Omer Pasha. While he is deeply troubled by the commander’s actions, he cannot help but succumb to the same forces, stating: “But then, we all tell lies, and we’re not much better than he is.” And so, the people of Sarajevo, though ravaged by forces well beyond their borders and control, remain trapped in a claustrophobic folie à deux until the occupying forces leave of their own volition.

In his final book, Andrić flexes his great talent for character studies and creates stunning tableaux of everyday life in a city under siege. What sentiment is left in the end, however, is a sad sigh of resignation. He does not offer a way out of the disorder that is so prevalent today; he only acts as its faithful journalist. What he does offer is some belief in history, in the notion that all tyrants eventually pass out of existence, and that we will have learned something valuable and come a little further before the next one takes the reins. Though the titular character drives the plot, it is clear from the outset that Andrić is more interested in how perverse political circumstances undermine our common values and, ultimately, our humanity. Masquerading as a biography of a single, larger-than-life figure, at its core, Omer Pasha Latas is a novel about how human beings treat one another.