The Disintegration of the Heroic Figure in Ivo Andrić's Short Stories


The post-World War I cultural climate in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (1918‒1929), later renamed The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, was largely centered around the subversion of all value systems that existed before the Great War. Ideas of patriotism and heroism were the targets of heavy scrutiny, due to the mistreatment of soldiers by the state after the war's end. These values, rooted in the epic tradition, were the objects of artistic transformation mostly with the use of parody, caricature, travesty, and similar methods. This is one of the prominent features of the Yugoslavian avant-garde movement.


One of the most active authors in the literary scene at the time was Ivo Andrić (1892–1975). At the beginning of the war, he was imprisoned for being a suspected collaborator in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 as a member of the "Young Bosnia" movement (''Biography'', n.d.). While incarcerated, he began writing a collection of lyrical prose titled Ex Ponto (1918), which marked the beginning of his literary career (Crnković, 2022). His fame peaked with the novels The Bridge on the Drina (1945) and The Damned Yard (1954), bringing him international acclaim and the Nobel Prize in literature in 1961. Although his most famous works are categorized as modernistic, many of his early short stories written in the 1920s possess the avant-garde subversive traits mentioned above. One of his creative explorations was the modern transposition of the heroic figure which reached its fullest form in two famous short stories, The Journey of Alija Đerzelez (1920), and Mustafa Magyar (1923).

Ivo Andrić in 1961.

Alija Đerzelez is an epic hero present in the Muslim oral songs of the Balkans. Epos about him appear in many places in the Balkans, and it is not yet clear who his historical reference is (Krnjević, 1980). Andrić's creative choice was to depict Alija as a Bosnian Muslim from the 18th century. He mentions two other figures known in the epic tradition, the brothers Morić who are Alija's only friends in the story. Other than them, Alija has no other ally. He is shown as having difficulties when trying to connect with others, unable to express himself clearly, especially his emotions which often overpower him, resulting in fits of rage. He is also candid and naive, which brings him ridicule, akin to Don Quixote. These traits are evident in the first pages of the story.


It begins with Alija Đerzelez's arrival at an inn near the town of Višegrad, with songs in his honor preceding him. The guests at the inn look in fear and awe as Alija appears tall on his white horse with blood-red eyes. However, the image of a great hero shatters as soon as Alija steps off his steed. He is shown as a caricature, dumpy, bow-legged with disproportionately long arms (Andrić, 1991, p. 8). Ivo Andrić goes further, and throughout the story, the reader discovers with increasing intensity that Alija Đerzelez behaves in ways atypical to those of an epic hero. The aspect of Alija's personality that Ivo Andrić exaggerates the most is his susceptibility to female beauty.


The story is divided into three parts that correspond to the three women Alija becomes enthralled with. At the inn (Andrić, 1991, pp. 8‒12), he gazes upon a gracious Venetian woman. He spends three drunken days there, openly showing his new affections for the unnamed woman to all the guests present, who in turn secretly mock him. The provocations reach a climax when one of the guests there named Fočak challenges Alija to a race for an apple. The winner would receive the Venetian woman as the prize. As the race starts, Fočak stops and stomps his feet on the ground pretending to run; Alija charges toward the apple, but as it was placed high up, he is unable to reach it at first due to his short stature, making him jump clumsily to get it and everyone around him laugh uncontrollably. The situation accompanied by the detail of the apple being rotten represents a parody of a heroic competition (Krnjević, 1980, p. 202). After the spectators run away hiding from Alija's fury, he is left standing in the middle of the yard, alone and humiliated.

The book cover of "The Road of Alija Đerzelez."

Alija Đerzelez loses his pride two more times during the story, failing to win over a Gypsy woman named Zemka, and the young Katinka. He is portrayed as an emotional man, unable to control his impulses and prone to feelings of karasevdah, a state of melancholic fervor rooted in unrequited love and usually intensified by songs and drinks. His desires to perform acts of heroism and earn the love of a woman are repeatedly denied, while his image as a hero becomes devoid of meaning. Therefore, he is not only a comic but also a tragic figure, a hero of modern unheroic times, disintegrated between the glorious epic and emotional lyric discourses (Krnjević, 1980, p. 182). In the end, he is left with feelings of resignation, dragging himself along a riverbed on his way to the chamber of a prostitute named Yekaterina.




Why was the path to a woman so tortuous and mystifying, and why was he, with all his fame and strength, unable to traverse it, when so many men worse than him did? So many-yet only he, in his vigorous and laughable prime, for ever held out his arms as in a dream. (Andrić, Trans. Hitrec, 1969, para. 14)

On the other hand, the story of Mustafa Magyar contains no humorous elements. Although this character does not originate from oral tradition, he does possess the attributes of a warrior-like hero. Miroslav Šutić (1981) identifies certain motifs in the story that signify a heroic archetype, most of which can be found in the descriptions of the battles he fought. The story begins with his return to Doboj, his hometown, where there is a three-day celebration held in honor of a victory against the Austrians in a battle near the city of Banja Luka. Word quickly spreads that the greatest hero of that battle is Mustafa Magyar. During the battle, he devises an ambush tactic that involves directing small rafts during the night over the river Vrbas near the Austrian military camp. At dawn, they charge the unsuspecting Austrian forces. Mustafa rushes first while others hesitate, jumps over the rafts as if he is flying, and upon reaching the last of the enemy soldiers, swings his saber in a way that appears to create a circle around him made of light and wind (Andrić, 1991, p. 22). Such a feat of bravery and tactical proficiency as described by Andrić has the characteristics of a heroic legend.


Ivo Andrić in his home.

Moreover, Mustafa stood out even as a young man. He studied at a madrasa in Sarajevo where he devoted himself to fasting, reading, and playing zurna, a type of woodwind instrument. He mostly kept to himself and his hobbies. Surprisingly, shortly after finishing his studies, Mustafa Magyar abruptly decides to join the army and fight against the Russians in Crimea. Word comes to Doboj about Mustafa being the most glorious among all the Bosnians. However, instead of portraying Mustafa Magyar's heroic persona, the author describes Mustafa from the inside, revealing his deteriorating psychological state as a consequence of the trauma of war. His credo, repeated throughout the story, shows his deep contempt toward the world instilled by the violence he witnessed and committed. "The world is full of scum" (Andrić, Trans. Hitrec, 1969, para. 6).


His descent into madness initially manifests as a persistent and worsening insomnia. During the nights, he walks around his empty home tormented by feelings of anxiety and terror. One night, he has a vision of his grandfather Avdaga Magyar sitting quietly on a chest. This hallucination fills Mustafa with such unbearable fright that he flees his home never to return. He starts wandering the countryside injuring, killing, and destroying anything that provokes him. With terrifying visions from the war appearing from his subconscious in dreams, he is forced to relive past crimes. One morning, he comes across a drinking fountain. He looks at his reflection in the cool, clear water, which represents an archetypal pattern: while gazing into one's reflection in still, magical waters, a person can see their fate (Šutić, 1981). Mustafa Magyar, in a grotesque transfiguration of an image of a saint, sees around his head a swarm of flies through which sunlight shimmers forming a dark, yet glowing halo (Andrić,1991, p. 27).

The book cover of "Mustafa Magyar."

In the two discussed short stories, Ivo Andrić did not create new types of heroic figures. Instead, he used already established models preserved in the Oral Traditions of his homeland and the archetypal patterns of legends and myths. However, these old figures could not exist unchained in modern times. They had to be transformed in order to reflect humanity's modern, XX centuries perception of concepts such as heroism, spirit, individuality, psyche, and authenticity. He used literary tools of parody and grotesque to bring into existence the irreproducible, unsettling, and unforgettable stories of The Journey of Alija Đerzelez and Mustafa Magyar.










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Jelena Martinec

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