Testimony, by Scott Turow

The premise of this 2017 novel is that four hundred Roma, gypsies, were reported buried alive in a cave after a deliberate man-made landslide trapped them inside. This is in Bosnia in 2004. Did such a massacre truly happen? If it did, who was responsible? Was it the Serbian militia? Was it Bosnian Muslims? Was it local gangsters? None of them liked the Roma.

There are also rumors that the American army was responsible. That they killed the gypsies in revenge because those same gypsies had stolen American guns and sold them to the Bosnian Serb leader, Laja Kajevic. And that this brutal man, patterned after the real Radovan Karadzic, had ambushed the Americans with those guns when they tried to capture him, resulting in four dead American soldiers and eight wounded.

The complicated politics of the former Yugoslavia, where Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians killed one another during the 1990s, has drawn Kindle County prosecutor Bill ten Boom to Europe two decades later. His move is in response to a mid-life crisis produced by an unfulfilling career back home and a lackluster marriage. And since he is of Dutch ancestry, he has accepted an assignment as a lawyer at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The American lawyer knows that a gypsy, Ferko Rincic, has brought a report of the gypsy massacre to the Court, and that his assignment will be to verify that story. All of which also represents a major switch from Turow’s own previous environment for his legal thrillers, Kindle County in the American Midwest. And not only does his hero know no one at the international court, he must also operate within an entirely new legal system.

The result is a fast moving legal thriller in which the ground rules keep changing as Boom and the Belgian Goos, his official investigator, uncover new information. The new data, however, seems either to contradict previous information or to be less reliable. This begins with the details of Ferko’s original report, but then continues as Boom succumbs to the sexual favors of Esma Czarni, Ferko’s lawyer, who is a British-educated beauty who claims a gypsy heritage. Still further complications are introduced by a transgendered woman, Attila, a former American army sergeant who now has contacts with both the American military and the Bosnian militia as a local provider of back-up services.

The search for the truth of what happened to the gypsies in that cave a decade earlier is a long and complicated one. There are thrilling moments, such as when Boom has his neck chained by unknown captors to the neck of his official investigator at the top of a Bosnian water tower, where the wrong move by either one will send them toppling to their death. And there are some emotionally moving moments as well, such as when Boom speculates on the faithfulness of the women in his life. But even more moving is when he learns that his true ancestry is not Dutch, and that his parents brought him to the America he loves in order to avoid charges of betrayal.

Indeed, the loyalties and the treacheries of the characters Boom meets in his new job are difficult to follow in a part of the world where the Bosnians, the gypsies, the U.S. Army, the Serbian militia, the free-lance provider, and the international court are often working at cross-purposes. What is interesting, however, is that many of these adversaries do come to appreciate and respect one another, even as they plot against each other. This recognition occurs, even though the slow revelation of what really happened in that cave produces long and complicated exchanges that are deliberately misleading. Which leads to more long conversations being sought from more reliable sources. Or, are they? Obviously, the testimony of the title refers to these conflicting conversations, even though many of them are not official proceedings in a courtroom.

Yet, despite these long and complicated exchanges of information, the overall experience this work offers is a rewarding one. First, both the story and the setting are different from what one usually encounters in legal thrillers. And this unusual Bosnian setting is convincingly real. It obviously required lengthy on-site research by the author, which has paid off.

Second, the novel is rewarding because Boom, the hero, has interesting personal problems that are interwoven into the story. How much is he capable of love, he asks himself. And, later, he speculates how can he fulfill his legal obligations to the Court, and yet at the same time make decisions that reflect the American tradition of fairness. Moreover, because he has come to respect a few of these adversaries, he recognizes that some have done bad things for good reasons, while others have done good things which were illegal.

In sum, this is a long and complicated story that moves fast early on, and then more slowly as Boom first gets involved with certain women, and then encounters a more nuanced situation when closing in on the truth about what happened to the gypsies. At the end, he seems to have found that truth, and yet is not completely happy with what he has learned.

What Turow has done here is taken moments of actual history, like an international court seeking to bring justice to the former Yugoslavia, like the historical cruelty among former Yugoslav neighbors, like the brutality of an actual Bosnian leader, like NATO troops rounding up weapons as part of enforcing the peace agreement, like a mysterious movement of seized arms from Bosnia to Iraq, and like a disgraced American general intent on saving his reputation. No wonder weaving them together turns out to be so complex.

Ben Macintyre aptly sums up this novel in his New York Times review. “This is at once a thriller, a story of middle-aged angst, an exposition of international law and an exploration of an intensely serious and a very nasty episode in recent history. Like the international court’s attempts to ring retrospective justice to Bosnia, it is imperfect and occasionally confusing, but also admirable and important.”

Just as his hero Boom sought a change of scenery and a change of venue, one wonders where Scott Turow will set his next novel. Will he return to Kindle County? Or will he explore the world further, intrigued by how the law is practiced under other cultures? (June, 2019)

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