Review of Testimony by Scott Turow (Grand Central Publishing, 2017) and They Would Never Hurt a Fly by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2004).

I mentioned Scott Turow in the last blog and I wanted to blog about how good his latest novel, Testimony (Grand Central Publishing, 2017) was.  But this blog/review is also a little about the civil wars that beset the former states of Yugoslavia in the 1990s with a lingering acrimony that persists to this day, particularly in the much troubled and divided former Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The sad story of Bosnia first came to my attention around 1992 when a colleague’s wife had family in Sarajevo – the Bosnian capital and scene of a Winter Olympics not many years before Serbian forces kicked off a 44-month siege of the city, regularly shelling it from the surrounding hills while snipers picked off hundreds of civilians trying to go about their lives.  The ethnic cleansing in Bosnia eventually made the headlines most notably with the execution by Bosnian Serbs of 8000 men and boys from the Bosnian muslim enclave of Srebrenica.

The connection is in Turow’s story: his protagonist, 50-year-old former prosecutor Bill ten Boom turns his back on a failed marriage and US legal career to take up a role as prosecutor for the International Criminal Court in The Hague.  His assignment is to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an entire refugee camp of 400 Roma (gypsy) people displaced from Kosovo into Bosnia. It’s the early 2000s and a witness has apparently come forward claiming armed men marched the refugees into a large cave and blew up the cave entrance, entombing them.

Ten Boom’s job is to quiz the witness and attempt to find out who did it, if indeed it happened.  Bosnian serbs are the obvious culprit but there’s also the possibility a nearby US Army camp may have been involved.

The cast of the novel is well-drawn, from the dodgy witness Ferko and his mysterious female barrister Esma Czarni, to a disgraced former US major-general Layton Merriwell, ten Boom’s immensely capable and laconic Aussie forensic assistant Goos, and former Bosnian Serb leader Laza Kajevic.  The narrative takes us from The Hague to the former Balkans battlefields and to the US where Merriwell plays a cat and mouse game with ten Boom.

Turow is a master of courtroom set-piece novels but Testimony isn’t dominated by the action in court; it’s a pacy, thoughtful thriller that held me like no book has for some time.  There’s an indefinable quality to the writing that really strikes a chord with me, which is about efficiency, colour, choice of words, concision, character believability and simple prose fluency.   Turow’s meticulous research is also admirable; a goodly wad of pages at the back-end of the book is devoted to the work he did to get the plot accurate.

I don’t recall many novels about this piece of recent war history.  And having read a bit about what happened through the Nineties, that doesn’t surprise me.  The brutal, inhumane ugliness of what took place in Croatia, Bosnia and to a lesser degree Kosovo, as Yugoslavia splintered, is a complex tale.  The crimes against humanity carried out by seemingly normal and ordinary people is an embarrassing and shameful episode in these countries’ history many would prefer to forget.

But it did get its time in the media and that was largely through the war crimes trials in The Hague, where former Serbian and Croatian soldiers and politicians, like former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (on whom Turow’s character Kajevic is based), his top general and leader of the Republic of Srpska army Ratko Mladic and former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, were tried.

These were showy and showcase trials but there were many other prosecutions that were slowly enacted, and by complete coincidence I came across Slavenka Drakulic’s excellent 2004 book They Would Never Hurt a Fly (Penguin). Croatian-born Drakulic attended a series of the trials of individuals and small groups of men (and one woman) who were being tried for a range of terrible acts on civilians and soldiers – murder, rape, torture, executions. Drakulic’s question: Who were these people?  Monsters – or ordinary people? Some were clearly evil, but for many the acts were hard to explain.  Drakulic tries but there are no easy answers to why a seemingly compassionate person could become a cold-blooded killer with no compunction in a short time.

Perhaps the big revelation for me is the degree to which Drakulic – a Croat – balances the ledger in terms of my perception of who the bad guys were in the Balkans.  The Serbs clearly were guilty of a great deal of inhuman action – mostly through the Republika Srpska forces – but the Croats also have a lot to be ashamed of in terms of their treatment of the Serb minority.  Tit for tat perhaps, but that doesn’t excuse it; the wounds will take a long time to heal.