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  • A Paradoxical Critique of Liberalism in the Novel The Woman from Sarajevo by Ivo Andrić
  • Tihomir Brajović

The Woman from Sarajevo (Gospođica) by Ivo Andrić, a Serbian writer and the only Yugoslav to win the Nobel Prize for literature, revolves around the existential and social circumstances before, during, and after World War I up to the end of the depression of 1929–33 and the first rumblings of the destructive machinery that led to mankind's second world-wide war, the period in which the novel was actually written.

Some political historians, such as Michael Bentley in The Liberal Mind, dub this "the period of Liberal decline," a time, it might be said, in which the "custodians of traditional Liberalism lost almost everything they most valued in political life," since "the war and its aftermath uprooted the political world that Liberals had understood and substituted it with something which seemed by comparison brash, cheap and contemptible."1 Andrić's novel, perhaps his most unusual and least studied, addresses the critical interval of 20th-century history which brought about the downfall of classical liberalism as the paramount political ideology of modern Western European societies while revealing the breakdown of humanistic ideals which, since the Renaissance, had been the driving force behind the civilised development of these societies.

As in his other novels written during World War II (The Bridge on the Drina [Na Drini ćuprija], The Days of the Consuls [Travnička hronika]), in The Woman from Sarajevo Andrić evokes the overarching events of world history via the skewed perspective of the inhabitants of the Western Balkans, a region marginalised throughout its history. This characteristic slant is underlined by the fact that the main character is a woman, cast by circumstances into the role of having to carry out what was traditionally regarded as men's work in the midst of the tumultuous and revolutionary events of the first third [End Page 87] of the last century. This unusual option by the author has at least two important consequences. The first concerns local circumstances and enables a narrative portrayal of a patriarchal Balkan society in extraordinary circumstances in which a social intruder unexpectedly becomes a significant factor in the life of the community, or at least a part of it. The second consequence relates to the broader scale and permits an indirect understanding of a state of international crisis which is severely testing the principle of individualism as the foundation of modern, liberal, democratic values.

To all appearances, there is much irony in the concept; even the original title of the novel, Gospođica, which translates literally as Miss, points to this conclusion. Andrić's heroine is Rajka Radaković, a lifelong spinster. Known as "Miss" to the town, she completely ignores the traditional female role of wife and mother. Inheriting her father's business following a financial collapse, she proceeds to pursue her affairs with phenomenal zeal and acquires the initial reputation of "a queer and revolting child-freak, and then for being Miss Moneygrubber and a person without pride or feeling, a monster among womenfolk, a kind of modern-day witch,"2 and lastly "no longer like a girl from a comfortable home but more like a creature out of a medieval ghetto."3 It is immediately apparent that all these stereotypes converge in the same figure, the obvious outsider, necessarily doomed in her particular time and place to social ostracism and marginalization.

However, that is not all. To this amalgam of externally-dictated identifications, the author adds an internal ambivalence to the main character, whose view of things reveals an ironic contradiction between what she yearns for on the one hand and what she shrinks from on the other. The first, sacrosanct place in the life of Andrić's unusual heroine is reserved for "money, sacred and mighty. Money that is above all things and against which no beauty of any kind can ever be adequately measured,"4 this grows into the cause of her unique "grand passion," because of which "It didn't take her long to begin to look upon […] the life around her as her hunting ground, and to lose sight of everything except her...


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pp. 87-92
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