Thirst (Zed) by Ivo Andric, 1934
by Ivo Andrić, 1934
Ivo Andrić's works have been translated into more than 30 languages, but the translations leave the mistaken impression that this Yugoslav writer was first and foremost a novelist. In fact, Andrić saw himself as a teller of tales, and he was known in his own country as a writer of dozens upon dozens of short stories. "Thirst" ("Zed"), a quintessentially Andrić story, is among the few of the author's short works readily available in English.
"Thirst," which is fewer than 5, 000 words in length, is superbly constructed, and Andrić considered it significant enough to lend its title to the sixth volume of his collected works. In its barest form the plot of "Thirst" concerns a young Austrian army officer who has been stationed in Bosnia with his wife. While the wife pines in the Bosnian "wilderness," the officer spends days on end combing the countryside for bandits. The most powerful bandit is a certain Lazar Zelenović, whom the young officer can only dream of capturing. By a fluke of fortune, however, the Austrian manages to seize Lazar. The wounded bandit is taken back to headquarters, where he is locked up and deprived of water for not betraying his comrades. While her husband slumbers, the officer's wife sits awake at night, riveted by the horror of Lazar's torture. Only with the rising sun do Lazar's moans fade and finally cease. The officer awakes and begins to make love to his wife. With the voice of the dying man barely gone, the wife is aghast at the thought of her husband's desires, but she is speechless and powerless to resist. She finally surrenders completely to the "twilit sea of familiar and ever-new pleasure…. Her nighttime thoughts and resolutions … dissolving into air one after another like watery bubbles over a drowning person."
Many of Andrić's stories derive from Bosnian legends and tales. But "Thirst," although set in late nineteenth-century Bosnia, is a retelling, with an existential twist, of Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus' beggar Lazarus, who is covered with sores, is an unmistakable model for Andrić's bandit Lazar, who has a festering chest wound, and, like Jesus' rich man, Andrić's Austrian officer is never named but is described as living luxuriously. Both rich men have the power to alleviate suffering, and both refuse to do so.
From here the direction of Andrić's tale diverges from its prototype. In the Bible both men die, and in hell the rich man begs Lazarus's heavenly protector, Abraham, to "send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water to refresh my tongue, for I am tortured in these flames." In Andrić's version it is Lazar who is in a hell on earth, beneath the commander's well-appointed quarters, and who begs for water from his guard. Andrić's Lazar and the guard Zivan come from the same town, and their families worship the same patron saint, Saint John. This is significant since, besides the story in Luke, the only other Lazarus in the Bible is in the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1-43. The New Testament story and "Thirst" also share a theme of isolation, but if the biblical story holds out a chance of salvation for the lowly through grace, Andrić's existential approach seems to offer scant relief. It is unclear whether the reference to Saint John is to inspire hope or is simply ironic. Since ambiguity is a hallmark of Andrić's style, the uncertainty may indeed be intentional.
The narrative style of "Thirst" is very much in keeping with Andrić's best laconic and aphoristic tendencies. People and places beyond Bosnia are described in vague terms: "The commanding officer brought with him, from somewhere abroad, a lovely fair-haired wife…." Dialogue is sparse. Though the officer "talked a great deal with his wife," there are only two lines of dialogue recorded between the two, and only Lazar's pleading for water, like the rich man's appeal to Abraham in Luke, is recorded directly at any length. Instead of psychological investigation into personalities, Andrić employs generalizations that give universal import to particular situations: "Between a person who is wide awake and his sleeping mate there is always a great and chilly chasm that grows wider with each new minute and becomes filled with mystery and a strange sense of desolation and tomblike loneliness." (This echoes Abraham in Luke 16:26: "Between you and us there is fixed a great abyss, so that those who might wish to cross from here to you cannot do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us.") "Thirst" is full of Andrić's favorite images and artistic associations. Night is not a time for sleep but of nightmarish insomnia, a state Andrić knew well from his own terrible inability to sleep, "a desert of gloom." Nature is indifferent and infinite: "The mountain, which had just turned green … seemed as endless as the sea." And the physical need for water parallels spiritual thirst, so often unquenched.
In "Thirst" Andrić accomplished precisely what, in the monologue "Goya," the author lay down as his own artistic and philosophical credo: "We must listen to legends…. One must seek [meaning] in those layers which the centuries have deposited around some of the most important of man's legends." By recasting in his own vision an age-old story, Andrić produced in "Thirst" a work of simple beauty, profound and complex intent, and lasting significance—a new layer in which to seek meaning.