Nicholas Whyte's Reviews > The Days of the Consuls
The Days of the Consuls
Nicholas Whyte's review
Dec 23, 2009
Read 2 times
http://nhw.livejournal.com/522861.html[return][return]I had previously heard of this book as Travnik Chronicle, which is the original Serbo-Croat title, but only worked out that they were the same novel as I was finishing it. It's the story of life in Andri's home town of Travnik as experienced by the Austrian and French consuls during the Napoleonic wars, told mainly from the viewpoint of the foreigners living in the town. I really liked it.[return][return]Travnik was the administrative capital of Bosnia until 1850, so the obvious place for the consuls to be posted. I thought at first that there was no plot at all, just a series of balanced and very detailed character sketches of the consuls themselves, their wives, the three successive viziers, and their staff. The native Bosnians themselves are not at the centre of the narrative - the Catholic clergy feature quite a lot, the mainly Muslim townspeople to a large extent as stereotypes (the book's biggest flaw), the Jewish community are reasonably well represented, the local Serbs come into it only twice quice near the end.[return][return]But I began to realise that the book is largely about how people experience other cultures. Although the foreigners - Austrians, French and Ottoman viziers - all hate living in Travnik and dealing with the locals, I think Andri portrays this as a big mistake on their part. Danville, the French consul who arrives at the start and leaves at the end, is the most sympathetic character, perhaps closest to a viewpoint character, but he is perpetually writing bad poetry about Napoleon and missing the local drama of the town for the sake of conspiring against the Austrians. By the time I was halfway through the book I felt that it should be compulsory reading for anyone working on the Balkans, provided they were prepared to look through the Western characters' stereotypical reactions to the Bosnians.[return][return]Am I reading it too generously? Was Andri being serious rather than ironic? Why could he not have stated more clearly that he is exposing rather than sympathising with the foreigners' condescension? I stand by my interpretation because Andri wrote the book in 1942, in Nazi-occupied Belgrade. And I think that his portrayal of civilised diplomats immersed in a barbarous, violent culture takes on a whole new burden of meaning when you remember that, until the collapse under German invasion of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Andri was serving his country as an ambassador - in Berlin.
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