The story is published in 1950, portrays the agonized fear of the Jewish owner of a little bar in Sarajevo on the one hand and the development of the brutal inadequate personality of a young Fascist, or “Ustasha”, on the other. The material is superficially as directly a product of the specific circumstances of the Second World War.
“The Titanic Bar” describes the situation in Sarajevo in the early stages of the War before the systematic removal of the Jewish population to work camps or extermination, when individual members of the Ustasha movement took advantage of the times to rob and persecute individual Jews. Some of these “Ustasha” acquired large sums of money or jewellery through blackmail or in return for helping some Jews and their families to leave the country. Andrić describes the dignity, squalid little bar owned by Mento Papo, so small that only half-a-dozen customers can stand in it at one time; and the character of Papo himself, the black sheep of the Sephardic community of Sarajevo, who took up with petty gamblers and drinkers at an early age and is generally regarded as having disgraced the Jews. The portrait of the young man in Ustasha uniform, Stjepan Ković is given as an inadequate, dissatisfied and consequently potentially dangerous personality. He is a man who needs some outward sign of importance: he has to carry something as he walks through the town. Ković suffers from a painful, obsessive desire to be something other than he is, above all to be seen to be important.
This story is a satisfactory coincidence of universal, generalized themes of fear and persecution with the specific circumstances of the Second World War in Bosnia, with both aspects of the whole developed. As in the case of the victims in earlier stories, Papo’s vulnerability acts as a magnet, a provocation to Ković’s aggression, which is turn functions as compensation for his own sense of uneasy dissatisfaction.
In the quarter between the electric plant and the tobacco factory, which at one time was called Hisieta, there was a honey-comb of forlorn little streets containing several cafés and tiny bars, even though the neighbourhood was stagnant and not particularly noted for its human traffic. Some of these cafés had bad reputations, which meant that they were well known and well frequented; they were regularly patronised even by people from the other parts of town.
On the very edge of the park that enclosed the tobacco factory, in Mutevelić Street, was the hindmost of these bars. It was a two-storied house with peeling plaster that reminded one of a loathsome skin disease, and its windows, flowerless and bare of curtains, were like some festering eyes shorn of lashes and brows. Its building style harked back to the middle period of Austrian rule, and was a bastard offspring of the architecture of Central Europe and of the Near East of that time, suffering from anemia and weak breath. Its visage was one of poverty, but poverty stripped of all charm and picturesqueness: the architectural expression of a life without thought or vision. Beside the main entrance on the ground floor there was an other, narrower one, topped by an overlarge green board with a red-letter sign on it:
B A R T I T A N I C
Prop. Mento Papo
The little bar-café, boasting the name of the tragically capsized English transoceanic ship, was a dark hole-in-the-wall some six yards long and two yards wide, without any chairs, so that the five-or six-odd guests it might accommodate always stood at the bar counter, though the owner would produce accrete or a beer barrel as a seat for his more elderly customers. Men given to drink and bar life are fond of just this kind of bare and cramped space, which gives one the sense of being a casual visitor, forever in transit; the kind of room in which none of the furnishing can distract a guest's attention from the essential business at hand-drinking and the exchange of maudlin conversation. At the far end of the bar, a green drape concealed a door that led by way of a corridor to two larger rooms. One of these was Mento's quarters, the other was empty, save for a bare table and several rudimentary chairs. This was the gambling room. Its windows faced onto the garden, which in reality was a combination of hen coop, stable, garbage heap, and children's playground. The pair of windows were always covered with cotton curtains, mildewed and already quite stiff with age and dust, which were never drawn aside as all gambling was done by electric light.