A historical novel set in 1850 depicts a year in Bosnia under the rule of a despotic general and his occupying army, along with his obsequious and devious court.
The politically active Andric (The Days of the Consuls, 1992, etc.) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, the only laureate from what was then Yugoslavia. This historical novel was his final book before he died in 1975, and this is its first English translation. The grim narrative leaves little room for light and none for humor, as it describes Bosnia during this volatile year as “on the surface, rebellion, violence and fear, and beneath it age-old poverty, the meager existence of the small man and the quiet, unstoppable decay of institutions and families, of everything that had been or was held to be reputable, powerful and rich.” Into this breach, the occupying forces brought a moral cesspool and insidious gossip, while Omer Pasha Latas ruled from an inscrutable, imperious remove, as if he were above it all. For he has his own secrets and identity issues, as a Serbian Christian refugee from Bosnia (born Mihailo Latas) who had converted to Islam and established himself as a ruthless leader within the Ottoman Empire under the sultan in Istanbul. His identity, beliefs, and allegiances all have a certain malleability, as he returns to Bosnia not in the spirit of homecoming but as an outside enforcer, determined to quell any rebellion in the land where he once lived. Amid the portrayals of various members of the court, the novel’s centerpiece finds the protagonist sitting for a commissioned portrait and shows how his relationship with the painter changes both of them. The plot pivots on a senseless crime of passion, a surprising yet fitting denouement within a court marked by what one character calls “killing and lechery! Because everything in this house is infected with foul, profane lechery...and lechery kills, it must kill, for it’s the same as death, unnatural, shameful death.”
The historical context will be unfamiliar to most readers, but the issues, of good and evil, identity and fate, are universal.